How Images of War Can Lead to the Desire for More War
June 11, 2012 1 Comment
There’s a commonly held view that if the American public received more exposure to the true consequences of war they would be less willing to support military endeavors. It’s a logical argument, but new research suggests that seeing images of destruction can actually have the opposite effect. Specifically, seeing images of destroyed buildings may make somebody more likely to support military action against an ideological enemy.
The study’s findings stem from the fact that dealing with death is one of the hardest things our brains have to do. Research on something called “terror management theory” has shown that one way we deal with thoughts about death is by reaffirming our cultural beliefs and worldview. The certainty that we live our lives based on “true” values and beliefs, as well as the knowledge that we’re sure to head to whatever afterlife we believe in, helps mitigate the existential issues posed by death.
So far, so good for our brains. The problem is that when attempting to reaffirm our beliefs, the existence of other worldviews is seen as a threat. To further bolster our own worldview, we see those with different beliefs in an increasingly unfavorable light, and as a result we’re more likely to support military action against them.
Now back to the study, which was led by the University of Missouri’s Kenneth Vail III and Jamie Arndt. The researchers showed subjects pictures of buildings that were intact, under construction, or destroyed. They found that images of destroyed buildings activated thoughts of death, and thus made people more likely to support military action against a particular enemy known to be hostile to American cultural values.
In Study 1, images of destroyed buildings and deadly terrorist attacks elicited greater death-thought accessibility than images of construction sites or intact buildings. Images of destruction also enhanced dogmatic belief (Study 2) and support for military action against Iran (Study 3).
The cycle is something like this: Seeing destruction –> activation of death –> reaffirmation of beliefs –> increased negativity regarding opposing beliefs –> support for military action or violence against those with opposing beliefs –> destruction occurs –> seeing destruction…
The authors relate this cycle to the “broken windows” theory and speculate about how run-down or destroyed areas deteriorate even further.
The present findings thus suggest that destroyed infrastructure can carry an existential signature, potentially serving as a day-to-day reminder of one’s own transience and encouraging hostile worldview defenses. Given the specific worldview defensive attitudes studied here, the present findings can help to explain how exposure to visible destruction in certain geographical areas, such as in cities suffering severe urban deterioration, the sites of terrorist attacks or military strikes, or even natural disasters, might encourage ideological dogmatism and exacerbate harmful intergroup relations, potentially leading to even more violence and destruction.
The study also illustrates a potential catch-22 for the media and anti-war activists with regard to reporting on military action. If they don’t publicize death and destruction, they won’t reveal the true nature of war. But if they do show death and destruction, Americans may respond by increasing support for action against those who threaten their ideology, and that’s most likely to be whatever country is opposing the U.S. in the military conflict.
Vail, K., Arndt, J., Motyl, M., & Pyszczynski, T. (2012). The aftermath of destruction: Images of destroyed buildings increase support for war, dogmatism, and death thought accessibility Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.05.004