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A Moral-Existential Account of the Psychological Factors Fostering Intergroup Conflict



We combine ideas from terror management and moral foundations theories to analyze the role of existential and moral concerns in the creation and escalation of intergroup conflict. We argue that moral values, as important components of cultural worldviews, serve to buffer existential anxiety. Perceived threats to one’s moral values thus are capable of inducing existential anxiety and unleashing strong moral emotions, creating the psychological impetus for intergroup conflict and violence. We review evidence that threats to the five core moral intuitions posited by moral foundations theory (harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/ sanctity) are associated with existential anxiety and that this contributes to intergroup strife and violence. Moral and existential concerns combine to create a vicious feedback loop that leads to self-perpetuating spirals of violence, which helps explain the intractability of many real-life conflicts.