My current research focuses on two main themes within the area of social and personality psychology 1) Terror Management theory and 2) Stereotypes and Person Perception.
Terror Management Theory
Terror Management Theory concerns the motivational underpinnings of people's need to perceive themselves as valuable members of a meaningful and orderly world, the ways in which these existential concerns shape people's conceptions of the social world and themselves, and the consequences of seeking meaning and self-worth for personal growth and achievement. I believe terror management theory (TMT) provides a broad and integrative framework for examining these topics and my research to date has therefore been conducted primarily from this perspective. Briefly, the theory posits that people manage existential anxieties stemming from the awareness of mortality by investing in a meaningful cultural reality that offers literal or symbolic continuance beyond death to those who meet prescribed standards of value. The resultant motivation to maintain meaningful conceptions of the world and one's life exerts a pervasive influence on a wide spectrum of cognitive processes and social behaviors, particularly when people are reminded of their mortality (i.e., "mortality salience"; MS). My research has significantly broadened TMT's empirical and theoretical scope by integrating specific insights from a variety of social psychological perspectives with TMT's broad existential framework to not only advance understanding of basic theoretical issues but also to inform issues of relevance to contemporary social problems and personal well-being.
Affection for Leaders
Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might
Mortality Salience and Mental Health
Terror Management and Meaningfully Structured Conceptions of the Self
Mortality Salience and Modern Prejudice
Stereotypes and Person Perception
My research with Lee Jussim has focused on social perceptual accuracy, which refers to correspondence between perceivers’ beliefs (expectations, perceptions, judgments, etc.) about one or more target people and what those target people are actually like, independent of those same perceivers’ influence on them. Stereotype accuracy, therefore, refers to the correspondence of the stereotype with what the target group is actually like. Stereotype inaccuracy, therefore, refers to a lack of correspondence between the stereotype and what the target group is actually like (Jussim, 2005).
Inaccurate stereotypes and bigotry are often regarded as synonymous, but this is not necessarily the case. Inaccurate beliefs about groups may sometimes reflect an innocent belief that is simply wrong. Bigotry, in contrast, requires a stubborn and motivated adherence to false stereotypes even after receiving compelling countervailing evidence. But distinguishing between inaccurate stereotypes that are innocent and therefore responsive to countervailing information, and motivated bigotry that is rigidly resistant to disconfirmation, requires standards of stereotype accuracy, and the methods for assessing accuracy. Indeed, we believe that research on stereotype accuracy is indispensable for answering this question in an honest scientific and empirical manner – and that the only “alternative” is the completely unacceptable one of presuming that people are guilty of bigotry without even the formality of holding a fair trial.
I am currently integrating my stereotype accuracy with TMT to demonstrate, through studies of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians, that uniquely human fears of death serve to perpetuate negative stereotypes, and in so doing, contribute to the cycle of escalating violence that now threatens regional and global stability. The tenor of most TMT research suggests that reminders of death will increase hostility toward different others. However, other research has demonstrated that this is not always the case when people of different cultures or lifestyles live in close proximity to each other. Although stereotypic depictions of out-group members are often quite negative, this serves individuals by enhancing their sense of worth through downward social comparison.
Negative stereotypes may thus become significant components of cultural worldviews and thereby serve an important terror management function. To the extent this is true; reminders of death should engender a preference for stereotype-consistent out-group members over stereotype-inconsistent ones. In accord with this hypothesis, Schimel et al. (1999) found that, while in control conditions American participants liked a counter-stereotypical African American target (studious chess fan) more than a stereotypical one (hard drinking rapping gang banger), this pattern was reversed after a reminder of death such that the hard drinking rapper was more positively evaluated than the studious chess fan. Schimel et al. also demonstrated that mortality salience led to decreased liking for a stereotype-inconsistent gay man (a logical basketball player) and increased liking for the stereotype-consistent one (an emotional theater major who likes to go shopping).
I have been working on exploring these issues at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel. Following Schimel et al. (1999), I hypothesize that under control conditions Israeli Arab and Palestinian participants should favor a Gaza or West Bank Jew who wants to negotiate a fair settlement for the Palestinians (counter-stereotypical) over a Zionist claiming that God gave the Jews the whole land so they can't yield anything (stereotypical). However, after a reminder of death, the Zionist fanatic should be favored over a more secular Jewish position of negotiated compromise. Similarly, under control conditions Israeli Jewish participants should favor a Palestinian “peace loving moderate” (counter-stereotypical) over a bombed-strapped suicide bomber (stereotypical); but after a reminder of death the suicide bomber should be favored.
Should this hypothesis be supported, it would appear that when people are confronted with intimations of mortality, they actually like people who hate them more. Such findings might in turn help in part explain why a negotiated settlement to this problem is exceptionally difficult when mortality is salient a good deal of the time, and provide insight as to what can be done to prevent further conflict before it escalates out of control.