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The effects of existential threat on reading comprehension of worldview affirming and disconfirming information

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Abstract

Terror management theory posits that cultural worldviews buffer people from thoughts and concerns about death. In support of this claim, numerous studies have shown that mortality salience (MS) increases an individual's motivation to uphold and defend important cultural worldviews. We hypothesized that the motivation to defend cultural worldviews following MS would also enhance people's ability to comprehend worldview affirming (vs. disconfirming) information. Three studies investigated this possibility. Study 1 showed that MS (vs. control) increased reading comprehension of a pro-evolution essay among participants with a strongly evolutionist worldview, but decreased reading comprehension among participants with a strongly creationist worldview. With the use of a pro-creation essay, Study 2 conceptually replicated these effects and demonstrated that the interactive effect of worldview and death anxiety on reading comprehension was mediated by defensive motivation. Study 3 replicated the results of Studies 1 and 2 among participants with a strongly evolutionist worldview, but only when the information in the essay was perceived as veridical. Discussion focused on the specific process through which MS affects reading comprehension of worldview relevant ideas. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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