Skip to main content Accessibility help

I Control therefore I am: Effects of Mortality Salience on Control Attributions

  • Guillermo B. Willis (a1), Alejandro Tapia-V (a2) and Rocío Martínez (a1)


Terror Management Theory posits that when individuals are faced with their own mortality, they use several defense mechanisms to reduce the existential anxiety caused by the thought of their own death. In this paper, we examined one such mechanism: Control attributions. To do so, we ran an experiment (n = 140) in which we manipulated mortality salience and type of failure (relevant vs. irrelevant consequences) with which participants were faced. Participants were then instructed to evaluate the possible causes of their failure. The results indicated that participants assigned to the mortality salience condition, compared to those assigned to the control group, were more prone to making controllable attributions. That is, even in situations in which individuals are motivated to avoid responsibility (i.e., a relevant failure), mortality salience increased perceived controllability. These results suggest that attributions might serve as a control mechanism to compensate for the sheer uncontrollability of death.

Desde la Teoría del Manejo del Terror se propone que ante el pensamiento de su propia muerte, los individuos desarrollan diversos mecanismos de defensa con el objetivo de disminuir la ansiedad existencial causada por la mortalidad. En este artículo se examinó uno de estos mecanismos: las atribuciones de control. Así, se realizó un experimento (n = 140) en el cual se manipuló la saliencia de la mortalidad y el tipo de fracaso (con consecuencias relevantes vs. con consecuencias poco relevantes) al que los participantes se enfrentaron. Después se les pidió a los participantes que evaluaran las causas de dicho fracaso. Los resultados mostraron que aquellos participantes a los que se les hizo saliente la mortalidad, en comparación con el grupo control, exhibieron una mayor tendencia para realizar atribuciones controlables; es decir, incluso en aquellas situaciones en las que los individuos podrían estar motivados para evadir la responsabilidad (i.e., un fracaso relevante), la saliencia de la mortalidad aumentó la controlabilidad percibida. Estos resultados sugieren que las atribuciones pueden ser un mecanismo de control compensatorio frente a la incontrolabilidad de la muerte.


Corresponding author

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Guillermo B. Willis. Departamento de Psicología Social 1. Universidad de Granada, Campus de Cartuja, 18011, Granada (Spain). Phone: +34-958244259. Fax: +34-958243746. E-mail:


Hide All
Arndt, J., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1997). Subliminal exposure to death-related stimuli increases defense of the cultural worldview. Psychological Science, 8, 379385. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00429.x
Arndt, J., & Solomon, S. (2003). The control of death and the death of control: The effects of mortality salience, neuroticism, and worldview threat on the desire for control. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 122. doi:10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00530-5
Baumeister, R. F. (1999). The nature and structure of the self: An overview. In Baumeister, R. F. (Ed), The self in social psychology (pp. 120). Philadelphia, PA: Psychological Science.
Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, NY: Free Press.
Castano, E., Yzerbyt, V., Paladino, M., & Sacchi, S. (2002). I belong, therefore, I exist: Ingroup identification, ingroup entitativity, and ingroup bias. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 135143. doi:10.1177/0146167202282001
Dechesne, M., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Ransom, S., Sheldon, K. M., Van Knippenberg, A., … Jansen, J. (2003). Literal and symbolic immortality: The effect of evidence of literal immortality on self-esteem striving in response to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 722737. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.4.722
Fiske, S. T. (2004). Social beings: A core motives approach to social psychology. Nueva York, NY: Wiley.
Florian, V., & Mikulincer, M. (1997). Fear of death and the judgment of social transgressions: A multidimensional test of terror management theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 369380. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.73.2.369
Fritsche, I., Jonas, E., & Fankhänel, T. (2008). The role of control motivation in mortality salience effects on ingroup support and defense. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 524541. doi:10.1037/a0012666
Gailliot, M. T., Stillman, T. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Maner, J. K., & Plant, E. A. (2008). Mortality salience increases adherence to salient norms and values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 9931003. doi:10.1177/0146167208316791
Goldenberg, J., Heflick, N., Vaes, J., Motyl, M., & Greenberg, J. (2009). Of mice and men, and objectified women: A terror management account of infrahumanization. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 12, 763776. doi:10.1177/1368430209340569
Goldenberg, J. L., McCoy, S. K., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2000). The body as a source of self-esteem: The effect of mortality salience on identification with one's body, interest in sex, and appearance monitoring. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 118130. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.79.1.118
Greenberg, J., Arndt, J., Simon, L., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (2000). Proximal and distal defenses in response to reminders of one's mortality: Evidence of a temporal sequence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 9199. doi:10.1177/0146167200261009
Greenberg, J., Simon, L., Porteus, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1995). Evidence of a terror management function of cultural icons: The effects of mortality salience on the inappropriate use of cherished cultural symbols. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 12211228. doi:10.1177/01461672952111010
Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and social behaviour: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 29, 61139. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60016-7
Heidegger, M. (1987). El ser y el tiempo [Beign and Time]. México, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Kay, A. C., Whitson, J. A., Gaucher, D., & Galinsky, A. D. (2009). Compensatory control: Achieving order through the mind, our institutions, and the heavens. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 264268. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01649.x
Landau, M. J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Pyszczynski, T., & Arndt, J. (2004). Deliver us from evil: The effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 11361150. doi:10.1177/0146167204267988
Lieberman, J. D. (1999). Terror management, illusory correlation, and perceptions of minority groups. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21, 1323. doi:10.1207/15324839951036524
Martínez-Gutiérrez, R., Rodriguez-Bailon, R., & Moya, M. (2010). ¿Por qué tienen éxito y fracasan las personas con poder y sin poder? Poder y atribuciones de control [Why do powerful and powerless individuals succeed or fail? Power and Control Attributions]. Universitas Psychologica, 9, 6170.
Mehlman, R. C., & Snyder, C. R. (1985). Excuse theory: A test of the self-protective role of attributions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 9941001. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.49.4.994
Mikulincer, M., & Florian, V. (1997). Are emotional and instrumental supportive interactions beneficial in times of stress? The impact of attachment style. Anxiety, Stress and Coping, 10, 109127. doi:10.1080/10615809708249297
Mikulincer, M., & Florian, V. (2002). The effects of mortality salience on self-serving attributions – Evidence for the function of selfesteem as a terror management mechanism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 24, 261272. doi:10.1207/S15324834BASP2404_2
Nail, P. R., McGregor, I., Drinkwater, A. E., Steele, G. M., & Thompson, T. W. (2009). Threat causes liberals to think like conservatives. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 901907. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.04.013
Norenzayan, A., & Hansen, I. G. (2006). Belief in supernatural agents in the face of death. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 174187. doi:10.1177/0146167205280251
Pittman, T. S. (1998). Motivation. In Gilbert, D., Fiske, S., & Lindsay, G. (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology, (4th Ed) (pp. 549590). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Pyszczynski, T., Wicklund, R. A., Floresku, S., Koch, H., Gauch, G., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (1996). Whistling in the dark: Exaggerated consensus estimates in response to incidental reminders of mortality. Psychological Science, 7, 332336. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1996.tb00384.x
Rhodewalt, F., Morf, C., Hazlett, S., & Fairfield, M. (1991). Self-handicapping: The role of discounting and augmentation in the preservation of self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 122131. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.61.1.122
Riess, M., Rosenfeld, P., Melburg, V., & Tedeschi, J. T. (1981). Self-serving attributions: Biased private perceptions and distorted public descriptions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 224231. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.41.2.224
Skinner, E. A. (1995). Perceived control, motivation, and coping. London, UK: Sage Publications.
Skinner, E. A. (2007). Secondary control critiqued: Is it secondary? Is it control? Comment on morling and evered (2006). Psychological Bulletin, 133, 911916. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.133.6.911
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2004). The cultural animal: Twenty years of terror management theory and research. In Greenberg, J., Koole, S. L., & Pyszczynski, T., Handbook of Experimental Existencial Psychology (pp.1334). New York, NY: Guilford.
Weiner, B. (1985). An attibutional theory of motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92, 548573. doi:10.1037//0033-295X.92.4.548.
Weiner, B., & Kukla, A. (1970). An attributional analysis of achievement motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 15, 120. doi:10.1037/h0029211



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed