Based on Research by Enny Das, Ph.D.. Psychology Science Minute written by Kyle Piecora, M.S..
With the devastating attack on Boston, it is natural for people to have thoughts about their own mortality. Because humans are both wired for survival and have the capability of introspection, thoughts of death may create feelings of fear and panic. These are the reactions that terrorists thrive on. One way humans cope with death is to believe in immortality or the idea of living on in others’ memories.
Another, albeit unfortunate, defense against death anxiety may be prejudice, especially with regards to terrorism. To determine whether thoughts of death played a role in predicting prejudice, a Dutch study led by Dr. Enny Das exposed individuals to either news about recent terrorism or neutral events. The subjects then completed a word-completion task measuring thoughts about death, and measures of self-esteem and degree of prejudice against Arab individuals. Those who viewed terrorism in the news thought about death more and, especially for those with low self-esteem, were more prejudicial.
When confronted by so much violence in the news, understand that our resulting fears of death may cause us to suppress our fears by becoming more prejudiced. To prevent this, remember that the actions of individuals do not define an entire group.
Das, E., Bushman, B. J., Bezemer, M. D., Kerkhof, P., & Vermeulen, I. E. (2009). How terrorism news reports increase prejudice against outgroups: A terror management account. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(3), 453-459.