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Mortality salience and violent extremism: terror management theory and understanding radicalisation in Australia

posted on 24.02.2017, 00:54 by Vergani, Matteo
This thesis investigates the impact of death reminders on young Australians’ views of extremism. Previous research in the field of Terror Management Theory (TMT) suggests that exposure to death reminders (also called Mortality Salience) can lead people to become more likely to adopt or support extremist views, and/or enhance existing extremist views. Additionally, the literature suggests that individual characteristics can play a key role in moderating the effects of Mortality Salience. However, no study has tested these propositions in Australia. And there is growing concern that the large effects observed for mortality salience manipulations in the US may not be observed elsewhere. This thesis uses the methodological framework established in thirty years of TMT literature to investigate whether Mortality Salience increases young Australians’ agreement with extremism in four experiments. Specifically, participants were firstly asked to fill in baseline measures like gender and other individual characteristics (such as political orientation and religiosity), which were posited as moderators of the Mortality Salience effect. Then, participants were randomly assigned to either a death reminder or a control condition. Following the manipulation, participants were asked to respond to measures assessing different forms of extremism. Four experiments were conducted with samples of Australian young people. In Study 1, the main hypothesis was not supported with the results suggesting the opposite, i.e. that Australian university students reject extremism following MS. In Study 2 I did not obtain any MS effect. In Study 3, the MS manipulation had a significant effect on some dependent variables, but not all of them were in the expected direction. In Study 4, I found that Jewish participants increased their support for violent counter-terrorism measures following MS. However, it is not clear why no MS effect appeared on other dependent variables. In conclusion, Mortality Salience did not result in any consistent statistically significant change on the participants’ agreement with extremism. I argue that the null results do not appear to be explained by incorrect experimental procedures because standard TMT methods were closely followed. Yet I argue that in the literature there are still numerous unclear methods and obscure procedures, which could affect the success of the experiment. I also argue that those opaque methodological and procedural aspects have theoretical implications for TMT, specifically about the definition and role of culture in the theory, the ability to formulate reliable a-priori predictions and the possibility for an integration with other existing theories. Despite significant methodological and theoretical shortcomings, the basic tenants of TMT may be valuable to understandings of hidden motives behind people’s behaviour. However, the thesis’ findings also suggest that the theory needs to be more precise in many methodological, procedural and theoretical aspects. Indeed, as presently examined by many social psychology researchers the theory is unfalsifiable. Acknowledging and addressing these limitations is important, not only for researchers seeking to understand the processes of radicalisation, but for any field of research seeking to employ TMT and associated methods. In summary, the present set of studies shows that death reminders (Mortality Salience) do not provoke openness to extremism (in the form of the Militant Extremism scale and other statements endorsing politically motivated violence) in the Australian samples. More generally, this thesis suggests that the theory needs to be reconceptualised and revisited, otherwise it risks losing its ability to help explaining complex and important phenomena like radicalisation.


Principal supervisor

Peter Lentini

Additional supervisor 1

Kerry O'Brien

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Social Sciences (Monash Australia)


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts