Terror in Istanbul: Terror Management Theory and the Psychological Fear of Death

It was a bloody start to the new year for many in Istanbul, Turkey.

As confetti rained down on New Year’s revelers in nightclubs around the globe, partiers at Reina’s club in Istanbul where instead showered with bullets as a gunman stormed into the club around 1.15am and opened fire, killing at least 39 people. Both American and Turkish authorities are calling this latest bloodbath a terrorist attack, making this the fourth terrorist-driven massacre on Turkish soil in the last month alone (Arango, 2017).

While Turkey has been disproportionately targeted by terrorists in recent months, it is certainly not the only country that has suffered from terrorist incidents this past year. The latest attack in Turkey is bound to heighten public fear, and increase the sense of distrust and suspicion in the West against Islamic communities. As politicians and the media seek to stoke anti-Islamic rhetoric, however, it is important to acknowledge the socio-cultural forces that feed into terrorism instead of buying into the erroneous assumption that Islam serves as a natural conduit for vile and base behavior.

Psychologists have long sought to explain the causes of terrorism, adding to a growing storehouse of theories and experiments that increasingly emphasize socio-cultural factors to explain the motivational drive of terrorists as opposed to any inherent individual pathology (DeAngelis, 2009). Terror management theory (TMT) identifies a common psychological drive, the fear of death, as a subliminal driver underlying the development of cultural and religious identities. Studies conducted by the initial proposers of the theory – Tom Pyszczynski, Ph.D., Jeff Greenberg, Ph.D., and Sheldon Solomon, Ph.D. – have found that thoughts of death prompt people to identify more strongly with religious and cultural values as psychological defense mechanisms. In relation to the conflict between the Middle East and the West, Pyszczynski and his team have shown that Americans, Iranians, and Israelis were all more likely to promote violence against an outgroup when primed subtly with thoughts of mortality (Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2003).

In recent years, death-thought accessibility (DTA), which is the level of activation of death thoughts, has built on the theoretical framework of TMT to provide further support for the findings of TMT research. DTA studies have shown that threatening cultural worldviews such as the belief in justice (e.g., bad things happen to bad people and vice versa), increases DTA and thus the tendency to defend such worldviews. These findings help to explain the lure of engaging in terrorist acts as a means of fighting injustice in countries that have suffered from bloody military interventions and economic under-development. In contrast to the self-report measures utilized in TMT studies, the direct measure of death fears offered by DTA, although not without its methodological critics, provides new research directions for TMT (Hayes, Schimel, Arndt, & Faucher, 2010).

As terrorism continues its steady rise, these insights are more crucial now than ever to foster better understanding regarding this phenomenon and develop corresponding intervention techniques.


Arango, T. (2017, Jan 1). Terrorist attack at Istanbul nightclub kills dozens. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/01/world/europe/turkey-istanbul-attack.html

DeAngelis, T. (2009, November). Understanding Terrorism. Monitor on Psychology, 40(10). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/11/terrorism.aspx

Hayes, J., Schimel, J., Arndt, J., & Faucher, E. H. (2010). A theoretical and empirical review of the death-thought accessibility concept in terror management research. Psychological bulletin, 136(5), 699-739. doi: 10.1037/a0020524

Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2003). In the wake of 9/11: Rising above the terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.



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Written by Cherise Fung

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Cherise is a recent graduate from Kutztown University with a B.S. in psychology, and minors in political science and literature. She is a budding academic and freelance writer, and is passionate about issues of social justice and activism. She believes that psychology, political science, and literature all work in tandem to enhance the understanding of these issues. She also blogs about postcolonial theory and literature at https://cherisefung.wordpress.com/

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