Mortality salience and morality: Thinking about death makes people less utilitarian


According to the dual-process model of moral judgment, utilitarian responses to moral conflict draw on limited cognitive resources. Terror Management Theory, in parallel, postulates that mortality salience mobilizes these resources to suppress thoughts of death out of focal attention. Consequently, we predicted that individuals under mortality salience would be less likely to give utilitarian responses to moral conflicts. Two experiments corroborated this hypothesis. Experiment 1 showed that utilitarian responses to non-lethal harm conflicts were less frequent when participants were reminded of their mortality. Experiment 2 showed that the detrimental effect of mortality salience on utilitarian conflict judgments was comparable to that of an extreme concurrent cognitive load. These findings raise the question of whether private judgment and public debate about controversial moral issues might be shaped by mortality salience effects, since these issues (e.g., assisted suicide) often involve matters of life and death.

JF Bonnefon
JF Bonnefon
Behavioral Scientist