Saturday, June 08, 2013

Death or Dentist

@sciencenow (via @jchyip) claims that Fear of Death Makes People Into Believers (of Science) (June 2013)

The article reports on a British experiment in which researchers invited subjects EITHER to contemplate their own death OR to contemplate dental pain. But contemplating death is not the same as fear of death. As I have pointed out on this blog before (a) the contemplation of one's own death is a standard meditative practice, and (b) contemplating dental pain is probably a lot more realistic and unpleasant than contemplating one's death.

So why do researchers persist in constructing a dubious comparison between death and dental pain?

Mortality salience and the spreading activation of worldview-relevant constructs: exploring the cognitive architecture of terror management
J Exp Psychol Gen. 2002 Sep;131(3):307-24

From terror to joy: automatic tuning to positive affective information following mortality salience
Psychol Sci. 2007 Nov;18(11):984-90

Sex and Death (October 2011)
Wikipedia: Mortality Salience


Scribe said...

My reading of it was that the difference in subject was the difference between the two groups of people - and that the group contemplating death were more likely to something-or-other. Not enough detail in the article, really, to prove/disprove the headline.

It also mentions a first experiment looking at rowers about to race, which highlights one thing not about science, but about the subjects' situations, imagined or real. That is, does the situation involve certain power relationships, and what form of anxiety does this create?

In the rower experiment, anxiety was based on competing, on being active and pushing oneself as well as one could. But in the dentist scenario, the power relation is reversed, and anxiety comes from the dentist, not the subject, being skilled.

This difference is essential to the topic - are we using/believing in science/religion to reinforce what we do, or to comfort us when things are out of our hands?

Either can be used for both, depending on what model you adopt and what relationship you have within that model. People who actively practice either (or both) and who understand what they're "for" may well adapt their "belief" to suit their situation, for instance.

Sometimes you need to be rational. Sometimes you need to just get on with stuff.

Richard Veryard said...

Psychologists carry out many experiments where they explore how people behave differently according to context. What I am objecting to here is the interpretation of the context. Even if people do alter their behaviour after they have been asked to think about death, we don't have to take the researchers' or even the subjects' explanation for this alteration at face value.

Contemplating death doesn't necessarily cause us to fear death. Indeed, it may help us to fear death less, and to feel greater courage in adversity. And what greater adversity (or so the researchers think perhaps) than dental pain?