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Fear of death leads to group behaviour

25 February 2009

Everyone knows that life is finite, even though most people don’t give it a thought in daily life. If they do, for example during an illness or terror threat, then it clearly has an effect on how they behave. People begin to show much more interest in large groups and even adapt their opinions to belong to such groups, discovered Lennart Renkema. This is also expressed in political voting behaviour. Renkema will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 5 March 2009.

One of man’s greatest fears is the fear of death. This fear, consciously or unconsciously, is often a driving force behind the behaviour and thoughts of people in everyday life. With the help of various experiments, Renkema has demonstrated that people strongly conform to the views and opinions of a large group if they are reminded of death, for example through terror attacks, natural disasters or a funeral.

Large political party

One example from the research is a fictional newspaper report that suggested that parking meters would in future only accept a parking card. Renkema: ‘If this suggestion was from a political party with a lot of support, for example the VVD or the PvdA, then people agreed with it completely. If the newspaper report said that the suggestion was from a smaller party, the positive reactions were significantly fewer.’ This only applied to the group of people who had been reminded of their mortality only a short time before by having to describe the emotions and thoughts that the idea of their own death evoked in them. The other test group weighed up the report ‘just’ on the basis of their own opinion.

Coherent world image

Being confronted with one’s own mortality has a major influence on the political choices that people make, states Renkema. In times of terror, people have a greater need to satisfy the norms and values prescribed by their culture. This offers a stable and coherent world image, thus increasing their self-esteem. Given that the opinions of the larger political parties are generally shared by more people, in times of terror these parties enjoy significant preference.

More stereotypes

The research has also revealed that people use more positive and negative stereotypes when they are reminded of death. ‘People really want to understand how the world works and use stereotypes to get to grips with the situation when it is ambiguous,’ according to Renkema.

Negative group behaviour

It is important that people who are often confronted with terror threats through their work become aware of what this could mean, thinks Renkema: ‘Just think of people in the army. When confronted with their own mortality they will be drawn even more strongly towards their own army unit. The result is that they experience their own group as much nicer and more fun than any other group and judge people outside their own unit in a negative way. And this is exactly when they need to be open – for example when posted abroad – towards other groups, for example the local population.’

Wary of fear

The most important reason for this ‘camp follower’ behaviour, according to Renkema, is insecurity. ‘These effects occur because people are trying to suppress their fears. People generally feel safer when they are one of a group. And in a group people are closer to information that could help them to understand the situation or environment and thus form a stable world view. This is an important mechanism for protecting yourself against the fear of death.

Curriculum vitae

Lennart Renkema (Assen, 1980) studied Psychology in Groningen. Renkema will be awarded a PhD in Behavioural and Social Sciences on 5 March 2009 by the University of Groningen. His supervisors are Prof. N.W. van Yperen and Prof. D.A. Stapel. His thesis is entitled  ‘Facing Death Together: Understanding The Consequences of Mortality Threats’. Renkema is currently a university lecturer for the department of Social and Organizational Psychology at the University of Groningen.

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Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.

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