Thursday, April 26, 2012

Expert Celebrities Lull Our Brains into Buying the Goods They Peddle

You switched on the TV and a commercial is playing. Maria Sharapova is in the midst of delivering a top spin to the corner of the opposite court. Clad in clothing with the distinctive swoosh logo as part of her multi-million dollar endorsement deal with sports giant NIKE, she smiles as the commercial ends with the wording - Just do it. 

The company is hoping that the next time you go shopping for tennis clothes; NIKE is where you go. 

Why do companies rush to sign endorsement contracts with the next big thing in sports and entertainment? What is it about celebrity endorsement that persuades us to buy a product? 

While researchers have long known that we are more likely to be persuaded by information coming from highly credible sources than low credibility sources, the underlying brain mechanisms remains unclear.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allows researchers to derive a measurement of neural activity from blood flow in the brain, new research by Dutch scientists suggest that what makes these advertisements so compelling and successful is that merely seeing a celebrity expert paired with a product is sufficient to induce a stronger memory and positive attitude towards the product.

In the study, 24 female students (mean age 21.8 years) had their brains scanned while being shown pictures of celebrities and objects in a sequential manner. They were asked to indicate whether a given celebrity was linked with the subsequent object. For example, participants were shown a picture of former world number 1 tennis player Andre Agassi followed by a picture of a sports shoe and asked if there was a relationship between the two.

The next day after the brain scan, the participants were asked to rate the celebrities’ expertise with the object. Their attitudes and memory of the objects were also assessed and the researchers found that objects that were perceived to be presented by an expert celebrity were more memorable and also elicited a more favorable attitude.

Brain imaging data revealed that participants showed greater left-sided brain activity in areas associated with semantic processing when the celebrities were paired with objects that they were perceived to have expertise in than when they were paired with non-expertise objects.

The researchers argue that the greater left-sided brain activity meant that participants were engaging in deeper processing of the appropriately paired celebrities and objects which resulted in better subsequent memory for the objects.

Greater relative activity in the hippocampus and parahippocampal gyrus – brain areas that are known to be involved in memory also supported their claim that appropriate celebrity expertise – object pairs were driving the memory effects of these objects.

This finding thus suggests that we would remember a golf club better if Tiger Woods was swinging it in a commercial compared to seeing UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver putting on the green.

But does remembering the objects better translate into actual dollars or are companies just wasting their money engaging celebrities to market their products? The study suggests that spending millions on celebrity endorsement is a sound investment.

Participants indicated that they were more likely to purchase the product when it had been paired with an appropriate celebrity expert. Greater celebrity expertise with the product also increased activity in the caudate nucleus – the brain area involved in trust and reward processing. 

Even though it is unclear whether male brains would show similar patterns at this juncture, the researchers touted the study as “the first steps towards a neuroscientific model of persuasion” and more research is expected to be on the way to improve our understanding of what makes us buy the things we buy.
So just remember, the next time you step into a NIKE store looking for that hot tennis skirt, it is unlikely to be just a happy accident.

Klucharev, V., Smidts, A., & Fernandez, G. (2008). Brain mechanisms of persuasion: how 'expert power' modulates memory and attitudes Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 3 (4), 353-366 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsn022

Friday, January 6, 2012

On Evolutionary Explanations of Restrictive Eating Disorders, and the Value of Radical Ideas

Evolutionary theory posits that every psychological, behavioural and physical trait expressed by an organism was selected for by aiding the organism in its survival and/or reproduction, and therefore had a functional purpose for existing at some point in evolutionary time. A trait could never exist if the environment was not conducive for its expression (i.e. hinders the organism in survival or reproduction).

By this logic, it might therefore be reasonably assumed (however inconceivably) that there could have been some adaptive function for the existence of anorexia and bulimia at some point in our evolutionary history. They are annoyances in our modern world because there could be a mismatch between its usefulness in the ancestral past and the environment today.

There are at least five major evolutionary explanations for restrictive eating disorders, each with its own flaws, as outlined by Dr Igor Kardum and colleagues from the University of Rijeka in a 2008 paper reviewing evolutionary accounts of anorexia and bulimia, namely (1) the reproduction suppression hypothesis (Wasser & Barash, 1983), (2) the model of parental manipulation (Voland & Voland, 1989), (3) the sexual competition hypothesis (Abed, 1998), (4) the adapted to flee from famine hypothesis (Guisinger, 2003), and (5) the combined concepts of 'social attention holding power' and the 'need to belong' (Gatward, 2007).

The most palatable (and, thus, conventional and popular) idea tends to revolve around competition among females catalysed by the media (sexual competition hypothesis). It is the notion that in wealthier societies, to be able to resist food is seen as a mark of having high status, while in poorer societies, to be able to get food is conversely the indicator of high status; thus anorexia is more prevalent in modernised societies while relatively larger-sized females are exemplified as beautiful. This is propagated via media imagery.

I will not go into detail with all the ideas as it can get rather technical, but in particular I wanted to point out two radical ideas put forth that, while still works-in-progress, were really interesting and reflective of creative, convention-defying attempts to think of new ways to consider this issue.

In particular, I thought Voland and Voland's (1989) model of parental manipulation interestingly attempts to account for why eating disorders tended to happen more with wealthier, higher class individuals. This model draws on kin selection theory and asserts that anorexia may be adaptive (useful) insofar as it increases an anorexic's helping behaviour to her own kin's survival and reproduction while suppressing her own reproductive success (because anorexia leads to a decline in fertility). Non-evolutionary research in the 70s showed that members of anorexic families possessed mutually overprotective attitudes, and anorexic individuals tended to worry constantly about the well-being of their families. In the ancestral past when families were larger, anorexic female helpers could suppress their own reproduction and therefore divert their own resources towards helping collateral kin, leading to greater inclusive fitness (genes belonging to family members). This sets the precedent for some interesting speculations. The model of parental manipulation suggests that anorexia is actually somehow exacerbated by parental influence. Many studies report significant correlations between dominant and overprotective mothers and the probability of anorexic reactions of their daughters. Anorexia reduces a female's fertility and hinders her from bearing additional offspring. Additionally, when a daughter is overprotected and dominated by her mother, her ability to find a mate is also reduced. In wealthy families, males are the more valuable sex as they have the resources to attain more mates. By inducing anorexia (thereby restricting the reproduction of daughters and also reducing their food intake), especially for families in higher societal strata and class, parents can then concentrate investment potential towards sons, who in wealthier families have higher reproductive value.

The next radical idea is Gatward's (2007) combined concepts of 'social attention holding power' and 'the need to belong'. 'Social attention holding power' is defined as an individual's ability to hold attention and gain investment from other members of the group, and this concept is closely related to the degree to which a person feels in control. Naturally, higher status individuals hold more social attention in their group and feel more in control. The need for belonging to a group is a fundamental human need, as ancestors who did not belong to any group were unlikely to survive for long in the harsher environments of the past. Because survival depended on belonging to a group, people had to compete for resources and this competition could lead to exclusion, if one wasn't careful. Anorexia might therefore have been adaptive in the past to prevent competition for food and resources, as well as compete in a more nuanced manner for status (a reference to the more conventional sexual competition hypothesis outlined above), thereby promoting group harmony and reducing the likelihood that one might get expelled. I would personally go on to speculate that in our modern society (essentially functioning and subconsciously perceived as a really large group), nobody feels like the highest status female who doesn't need to conform to restrictive eating disorder, because there is an implicit assumption that the highest status female is the one they see artificially created by the media. So everyone else who feels subordinate will increase her tendency to engage in restrictive eating disorder, an adaptation brought on by the need to maintain the large group's social harmony.

These are certainly radical theories that need to withstand more empirical testing, but it is exciting to read them because they represent interesting attempts to get away from more conventional and acceptable ideas that do not necessarily get us very far, as evidenced by the fact that many extant theories on the causes of eating disorders still have ambiguities and gaps. Of course, there has to be a deal of initial plausibility, lacking which we would just think the idea is quack. But science is ultimately pushed by great thinkers with ground-breaking insights.

On a concluding note, the authors of the review paper highlight one consistent element found among all proposed evolutionary theories of restrictive eating disorders - response to threat. All the major evolutionary explanations can be reasoned as a form of response to threat (to survival and/or reproduction) that leads people (especially females) to develop symptoms of eating disorders. This independently corroborates research linking eating disorders with feelings of insecurity and need for control.
Abed, R. (1998). The sexual competition hypothesis for eating disorders British Journal of Medical Psychology, 71 (4), 525-547 DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1998.tb01007.x

Gatward N (2007). Anorexia nervosa: an evolutionary puzzle. European eating disorders review : the journal of the Eating Disorders Association, 15 (1), 1-12 PMID: 17676667

Guisinger S (2003). Adapted to flee famine: adding an evolutionary perspective on anorexia nervosa. Psychological review, 110 (4), 745-61 PMID: 14599241

Kardum, I., Gračanin, A., & Hudek-Knežević, J. (2008). Evolutionary explanations of eating disorders Psychological Topics, 17 (2), 247-263.

Voland, E., & Voland, R. (1989). Evolutionary biology and psychiatry: The case of anorexia nervosa Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 223-240

Wasser, S., & Barash, D. (1983). Reproductive Suppression Among Female Mammals: Implications for Biomedicine and Sexual Selection Theory The Quarterly Review of Biology, 58 (4) DOI: 10.1086/413545

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sexual Strategies Underlie Religious Inclinations

The positively correlated associations between religiosity (of a Christian-centric nature) and low levels of promiscuity and high levels of abstinence and marriage-centricity are generally quite clear enough. We often see that religion seeks to suppress sexual promiscuity through its doctrines that promote a monogamous sexual reproductive strategy characterized by low promiscuity, exclusive heterosexuality and high premiums on marriage and fertility.

Intuitively, we might guess that our sexual inclinations owe to how much exposure we have towards our adopted religion. Thus, we might, quite reasonably, suppose that someone who regularly attends Sunday school and comes from a religiously devoted family with staunch practices in the home would more likely be shaped into a long-term mating, marriage-inclined and sexually abstinent person, than someone who does not observe those traditions and customs. Indeed, it was found that treating premarital sex as sinful creates incentives to marry earlier, and condemning abortion and birth control as sin makes people have children.

However, when we look at the US, which is considered the most religious nation compared to its other western counterparts, what is fascinating is that it is remarkably evenly divided - approximately 42% of adults never attend religious services, 18% attend intermittently, and 40% attend services regularly (information from the 2006 US General Social Survey).

This suggests that, while a country may adopt non-secular values to predominantly guide its affairs and inform its citizens, not everyone may agree or be inclined to go along with those values. In the case of the US, this divide is exemplified by the emergence of the Religious Right and the Liberal Left.

As evolutionary psychologist Kenrick (2011) colloquially and aptly states it, "the prototypical member of the Liberal Left ... may wait until at least the end of college before marrying and beginning to have children and then may delay even a few years longer to go to graduate school, law school or medical school. Because the human ability to resist sexual urges has a hard time outlasting all that postponement, these folks do not like the Religious Right's attempts to impose rules against premarital sex [or] tools of family planning. ... [The Liberal Left pose a problem for the Religious Right] because a large number of sexually loose young people playing the field threatens to disrupt the strict system that religious folks have set up to enforce and reinforce family bonds."

Working on that insight, Weeden, Cohen and Kenrick (2008) proposed the reproductive religiosity model - instead of religiosity affecting our mating strategy (whether we can be promiscuous short term maters, or should be committed, abstinent long term maters), it is instead our mating strategy that makes us calculate the costs and benefits of adopting a religion, or remaining devoted to our current religion. If I am unable to bear the cost of abstinence from premarital sex and I do not want to marry early, my exit strategy is to drop my impeding religion.

By analyzing data from two large sources - 21,131 respondents in the 2006 US General Social Survey and 902 undergraduate students who were probed about their family plans, sexual attitudes, religious attendance, and moral feelings about issues ranging from lying to stealing - it was found that the strongest predictors of religiosity were factors related to sexual and family values. While there were other typical variables that predicted for religiosity, such as being female, older, or a non-drinker, and being high in conscientiousness and low in sensation-seeking, statistically controlling for sexual and family value items made the links between these other typical variables with religiosity disappear. In other words, everything we might have assumed to be associated with religiosity can be boiled down to sexual and family values. The study by Weeden, Cohen and Kenrick (2008) thus provide evidence that, on average, whether we are religious or not in the first place depends on how promiscuous we want to be.

If that causal link is true, could it be possible to manipulate people's mating strategy and thus alter their religiosity, in the psychology laboratory no less?

A study by Li, Cohen, Weeden and Kenrick (2010) sought to test that idea. A cleverly deceptive cover story and elaborate experimental design was used, but in brief, participants were ultimately made to look at either desirable members of their own sex or desirable opposite sex members (such a priming method has been found to be effective in conjuring either a mating motivation state - when we check out attractive opposite sex persons - or a mating threat state - when we are made to look at attractive same sex persons). Participants were also made to fill out a survey on the pretext of finding out their attitudes; embedded in the survey were questions pertaining to religiosity.

The results showed that when the men looked at attractive ladies and when the women looked at attractive guys, there was no discernable effect of mating motivation on religiosity. Interestingly, the laboratory setting was unable to capture any desire to give up religion when participants were made to feel more motivated to mate. However, what was more interesting was that, instead, participants who looked at attractive members of one's own sex expressed greater belief in religion. Being primed with mating insecurity leads people to become more religious.

We see support here for the classic antagonism played out between the Religious Right and Liberal Left. Once again, Kenrick (2011) states it best, so he will be quoted here: "When you become aware that there are a lot of highly attractive mating competitors out there, it reduces the perceived benefits of playing a fast and loose mating strategy ... For women, a lot of attractive competitors means less attention from the attractive men who might provide good genes, and fewer fellows vying to support your offspring. For men, on the other hand, an abundance of especially handsome and available guys means that if you are playing the field, you may be playing with yourself for most of the game. Under circumstances of limited opportunities, any normal person - who does not look like a fashion model - could benefit from the religion-based supports for monogamy."

This is not to say that religious practices do not reduce sexual promiscuity - all other things equal between two people who are subjected to different levels of religious piety, we would expect the one who has been told that things like premarital sex are sinful would be less inclined to do the deed. However, these studies highlight another crucial direction in the causation, that sometimes people may choose how religious they want to be based on the perceived cost of carrying out sexual "transgressions" under the religion they are affiliated to. And at the heart of the differing values the Religious Right and the Liberal Left promote, each camp is sustainable because they encourage and reinforce different mating patterns; there is antagonism only because a clash of these value systems is highly disruptive to each side's foundations for their own reproductive status quo.
Weeden, J., Cohen, A., & Kenrick, D. (2008). Religious attendance as reproductive support Evolution and Human Behavior, 29 (5), 327-334 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.03.004

Li YJ, Cohen AB, Weeden J, & Kenrick DT (2010). Mating Competitors Increase Religious Beliefs. Journal of experimental social psychology, 46 (2), 428-431 PMID: 20368752

Monday, August 1, 2011

We're back!

We're back! After a long hiatus as a resultant mish-mash of graduation, traveling and everything else in between, Psychothalamus is ready to churn out more interesting reads once again.

Before that, we thought it'd be nice to share with our readers what we've been up to and where we're headed.

Jose wasted no time hitting the road the moment his final finals ended. Within hours of his last examination paper, he was jetting off on his graduation trip from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City. Over the course of some very crazy 45 days, Jose traveled from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Bangkok, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Nong Khai, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Kathmandu and Pokhara. The traveling didn't end there though; upon settling down back home, he was off again to Washington DC to attend the 2010 APS Conference, where he presented a poster on the findings of his Honours Thesis. Officially graduated, Jose will be spending the next year working on a few projects at the Behavioural Sciences Institute of Singapore Management University before applying for graduate studies.

To celebrate getting admitted into graduate school, QH travelled over 6000km by rail and road on his epic tour of China, spanning 28 days, visiting a grand total of ten UNESCO sites. He suffered a severe bout of Montezuma's revenge on the trip and came back with a 100RMB counterfeit currency in his wallet. He is now trying to get himself fired up for the long road ahead as he prepares to pursue a PhD in cognitive neuroscience in the fall of 2011.

Shawn did not have all that much money to travel, so he satisfied his travel cravings with a three-day trip to Japan, of which two days were spent in Akihabara, the otaku mecca of anime and videos. The rest of his time was filled up by compulsory physical training to maintain his fitness levels for the Singapore Army, and preparation for his PhD at the National University of Singapore Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering, where he will be combining his love for Neuroscience and Genetics.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Professional Distaste for Administration?

Ever had to deal with difficult administrative personnel pressing you to adhere to some (@?$&#!!) company policy? Regardless of your own personal experiences, the euphemisms abound for administration (the powers that be, the higher ups, paper tigers, tai chi masters, etc) suggest that the administrative department is difficult, bureaucratic, meddling and restrictive. As a young employee joining a company, one of the first few things an attached mentor often shares in a "between you and me" moment is his or her gripe with administrative policy.

Administrators do have a crucial role to play in organisations. They set the boundaries and parameters within which organisation members are allowed to play. Administrators are often (either perceived as or truly) detached from the idealisms of the organisation, as their primary function is to regulate the workflow and processes of the organisation, in the hopes of ensuring that certain outcomes (often mundane ones) are achieved, such as neater procedures, safety, transparent accounts, etc. It therefore often makes sense to employ administrators who might not share the same essential pursuits of the other members of the organisation, so that a more objective and strict execution of implementations, policies, rules and regulations can result. Enforcing the red tape, so to speak.

How do people respond to difficult, strict and/or assertive administrators, particularly when those administrators are attempting to necessitate certain policies? According to a 2009 study done by Hekman (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Steensma, Bigley and Hereford (University of Washington), our likelihood of responding positively to administrative pressure (such as to adopt new work behaviour) depends on the degree to which we identify either with our profession or our organisation.

Formalising administrative pressure as Administrative Social Influence (ASI), the authors found that professional employees were most receptive to ASI to adopt new work behaviour when they strongly identified with the organisation and weakly identified with the profession. Conversely, ASI was counterproductive when professional employees identified strongly with the profession while identifying themselves weakly with the organisation.

The authors showed this by looking at a sample of about 200 primary care professionals from a large, non-profit health maintenance organisation. ASI was carried out to get the health professionals to adopt a new internet-mediated email-based technology called secure messaging, designed to reduce patient demand for office visits which in turn lowers expenses. Compliance with ASI was thus the measured dependent variable - whether the health professionals responded promptly (within 24 hours) to secure messages from their patients. The health professionals' organisational and professional identification was measured, and their identification was correlated with their tendency to follow through on the call to use secure messaging. Additionally, their perception towards ASI pressure was measured as well.

The results of their study showed that the more health professionals thought of themselves as part of an organisational team (strong organisational identification), the more they were likely to comply with new work behaviours solicited via ASI, and the less likely they were to perceive ASI as pressuring. The authors cite evidence that administrators are generally seen as "organisational guardians" (Freidson, 2001) and as "prototypical organisational members" (Golden et al., 2000), and when organisational identification is high, "professional employees’ sense of self is tied closely to a group that includes administrators. As a result [...] organizational identification leads professional employees to believe that organizational administrators are like them and on their side." On the other hand, people who identify strongly with their profession care very much about their professional responsibilities and tend to be skeptical of the interests and agenda of administrators who appear to care more about efficiency and profitability rather than high quality service. So, when health professionals have a greater sense of oneness with the nature of their profession rather than the bigger organisation they work within (strong professional identification), they were less likely to comply with new work behaviours solicited via ASI, and were also more likely to perceive ASI as meddling and demanding.

The authors thus conclude that ASI is effective only in limited contexts (i.e., only when one type of identification was relatively high while the other was relatively low). While the authors prudently keep away from commenting on their personal feelings towards "the powers that be", their study implies that organisations should consider encouraging greater social identification of their employees with the organisation if they want to increase employee compliance with new implementations. Might prove less of a problem with professional administrators...
Hekman, D., Steensma, H., Bigley, G., & Hereford, J. (2009). Effects of organizational and professional identification on the relationship between administrators’ social influence and professional employees’ adoption of new work behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94 (5), 1325-1335 DOI: 10.1037/a0015315
Golden, B., Dukerich, J., & Fabian, F. (2000). The Interpretation And Resolution Of Resource Allocation Issues In Professional Organizations: A Critical Examination Of The Professional-Manager Dichotomy* Journal of Management Studies, 37 (8), 1157-1188 DOI: 10.1111/1467-6486.00220

Freidson, E. (2001). Professionalism: The third logic. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sacred Values as Heuristics

Can being faced with a decision involving morals be a good thing? Research has shown in the past that morally-laden decisions are perceived as difficult and unpleasant. Therefore, conventional wisdom suggests that people would react characteristically when faced with decision-making with moral considerations, such as avoiding being placed in a position to make moral decisions, or effortfully spending more time deliberating over difficult moral decisions.

However, perhaps there's more to it than meets the eye, and Hanselmann and Tanner from the University of Zurich think so. In a very concise study, Hanselmann and Tanner (2008) sought to show that the involvement of moral issues and values can, instead, actually facilitate our decision-making. By invoking what are known as sacred values (absolute and inviolable values), we may end up spending less time thinking about the dilemma simply because an option that has sacred value makes us think that it cannot be compromised.

Every dilemma or decision involves some extent of trade-off. The authors conceptualized three types of trade-offs for the study:

Taboo trade-off
a situation that pits a secular value (i.e. a value that does not hold moral worth) against a sacred value

Tragic trade-off
a situation that pits two sacred values against each other

Routine trade-off
a situation that pits two secular values against each other

One might thus think of a routine trade-off in the case of a typical job dilemma. Faced with employment in Company A vs Company B, one might consider trading off mundane items such as salary, distance or working environment. On the other hand, an extreme (though commonplace) example of a tragic trade-off would be to decide whether to save one's parent or an offspring instead in the event of a fire.

In the first experiment, 84 students from the University of Zurich were presented with three scenarios representing a taboo, tragic or routine trade-off. Each scenario provided a choice between two options. An example of a taboo trade-off scenario was as follows:

Imagine that you are the president of the local authority of a village that has been severely affected by a flood. The local authority is discussing whether to invest a considerable amount of the annual budget in improved flood protection measures. In this case, however, the village would have to forego a planned facelift for the village square. As president, you have to decide between the improvements in flood protection (option 1) and the facelift for the village square (option 2).

Participants were then asked to rate how they felt about the decision, such as how emotionally negative the decision was and how difficult it was to decide on an option. The following results were gathered:

As can be seen, the difficulty of decision-making was lowest when sacred values were pitted against secular values, showing that, although decision-making involving some degree of moral choice is still emotionally unpleasant, it can lead to easier decision-making. A second experiment, which was a more complex (with multiple traits to access decision difficulty and affectiveness) but fundamentally similar experiment, was conducted and the results were replicated.

Tetlock (2003) had assumed that the mere contemplation of trade-offs that involve sacred values elicits distress and disturbance. There could very well be an adaptive or functional purpose to our negative perception of moral choices which makes us acutely aware that compromising on sacred values can have adverse consequences. In a sense, we are psychologically 'punished' for even contemplating the trade-off of sacred values, so let alone act against our instinct to preserve sacred values. These findings thus suggest that reliance on sacred values may therefore work as a heuristic that we use to increase the efficiency of our decision-making.

ResearchBlogging.orgMartin Hanselmann, & Carmen Tanner (2008). Taboos and conflicts in decision making: Sacred values, decision difficulty, and emotions Judgment and Decision Making, 3 (1)

Tetlock, P. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7 (7), 320-324 DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00135-9

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Existential Neuroscience

Is it reasonable to fear death? If you agree with Lucretius, you will say no. In what is known as the Symmetry Argument, Lucretius contends that that the time before our existence is similar to the time of our future non-existence. And since we do not fear the time before we existed, it is not reasonable to fear our future non-existence i.e. death. (See Rosenbaum, 1989 for a more detailed exposition)

However, even if you concede to Lucretius’s argument, the fact remains that the awareness of our mortality generates a significant threat to our psychological well-being. A large corpus of research on terror management theory details how mortality saliency affects our self-esteem, worldview, among others.

In a recent fMRI study, Quilin and colleagues (2011) extends our knowledge on terror management theory by exploring the neural correlates of mortality salience. They were interested in the activity of the amygdala, rostral anterior cingulated gyrus (ACC), ventral tegmental & caudate nucleus (CN).

In this within-subjects experiment, thoughts of death were induced in the participants by requiring them to agree or disagree with a statement such as I am afraid of a painful death. Statements about dental pain were used in the control condition.


The authors found higher activations in:

  • Right amygdala
  • Left ACC
  • Right CN
They suggested that the activations in the amygdala and ACC may indicate ‘non-conscious, latent markers of threat aroused by mortality salience’ and that further investigations may reveal the role of the CN in regards to the defensive mechanisms that we employ against mortality threat.

This area seems promising to me and more research needs to be done to help us better understand how we deal with threats of mortality. It would also be interesting to look at how religious affiliations affect the way the brain deal with existential fears. If indeed 'mortality threats functions as a potential for anxiety rather than as experienced anxiety', what can neuroimaging techniques tell us about whether believing in a higher being help us deal with the potential or experienced anxiety resulting from mortality threats?
Quirin M, Loktyushin A, Arndt J, Küstermann E, Lo YY, Kuhl J, & Eggert L (2011). Existential neuroscience: a functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of neural responses to reminders of one's mortality. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience PMID: 21266462

Rosenbaum, S. (1989). The Symmetry Argument: Lucretius Against the Fear of Death Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 50 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2107964