How Images of War Can Lead to the Desire for More War

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

One Response to How Images of War Can Lead to the Desire for More War

  1. Misaki says:

    From Principled moral sentiment and the flexibility of moral judgment and decision making. March 2008. Table 1.

    where the “intense” scenarios would sometimes increase the likelyhood of someone choosing it.

    Footbridge. (Thomson, 1985)
    In the path of a runaway train car are five railway workmen who will
    surely be killed unless you, a bystander, do something. You are standing on a pedes-
    trian walkway that arches over the tracks next to a large stranger. Your body would
    be too light to stop the train, but if you push the stranger onto the tracks, killing him,
    his large body will stop the train. [You try to block out the terrible images of him
    falling and of his body being impacted by the train]

    With the bracketed “vivid” addition, the response score went from 0.10 to 0.16. Similar to a “plane crash” scenario, but most other scenarios did not have a higher score from vivid descriptions.

    This study is somewhat reminiscent though of the one (on this site?) where someone who is “primed” by references to money will act in a more selfish manner.

    Is the destroyed structure an Iranian building or a US buildling..? What if it was accompanied by a photo saying “tornado damage”?

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