Legal Applications of Terror Management Theory.

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Book Section

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Publication Title

Handbook of Terror Management Theory


Academic Press

Publisher Location

London, UK

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In this chapter, we explore the application of terror management theory (TMT) to criminal justice issues. We begin with a discussion of the relationship between morality and legality, and examine the ways in which laws regulate moral behavior. We then examine the connection between the accessibility of death-relevant cognitions, or mortality salience (MS), and the commission, prosecution, and punishment of offenders. In some cases, MS may drive criminal activities, stemming from an individual’s desire to enhance self-esteem or to engage in cultural worldview defense. Such moral, and, ultimately, legal transgressions, may lead both lay people and actual judges to seek greater punishment for offenders under MS conditions. However, the relationship between MS and legal judgments is complex, and may be affected by the specific motivations of offenders, the attitudes of legal decision makers, and fair process concerns, which appear to be an important component of cultural worldviews. We discuss how attorneys might reduce or capitalize on MS effects during a trial. We then examine how aspects of a trial may produce MS and review research that has focused on legal judgments within death penalty trials. Finally, we examine the application of TMT to several criminal justice issues of major national importance—illegal immigration and police use of force resulting in the deaths of unarmed civilians. We explore the latter topic from the perspectives of both police officers and civilians, helping, in part, to understand the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. We conclude with a discussion of avenues that may lead to a reduction of violent behavior, and an increase in pro-social actions, along with greater justice within the legal system. Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, the September 11th attacks, Ferguson, and the Trump administration’s desire to curtail illegal immigration all reflect crime-related incidents that have had a profound impact on culture in the United States. Over the past three decades, media outlets have spent many months covering each of these news stories, and these events have served to shape society and have impacted the interaction between different cultural subgroups. All of these news stories are instances where moral standards were violated in some way and highlight the important relationship between morality and legality. In this chapter, we examine that relationship through the lens of TMT. We apply TMT to the commission, prosecution, and punishment of crimes. We also use TMT to better understand psychological factors at the heart of several of the most dominant crime and justice topics that currently exist in the United States: terrorism, illegal immigration, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.


Terror management theory; Mortality salience; Black Lives Matter; Legality; Criminal justice; Offenders


African American Studies | Criminology and Criminal Justice | Terrorism Studies



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