terror management theory

Psychologists Analyzed a Big Collection of Condemned Inmates’ Last Words

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It’s a strange and uncomfortable exercise: Imagine you’re about to be executed, and you’re given the opportunity to make a final statement. What would your last words be? To psychologists who study how humans cope with fear and death, condemned inmates’ final statements are — setting aside the ick factor — a rich potential source of information. There are few other situations in which you can hear the thoughts of someone who knows they will be dead in a few minutes.

In a new paper in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers Dr. Sarah Hirschmüller and Dr. Boris Egloff tap a rich source of these statements — the state of Texas — to better understand how condemned inmates make sense of what has happened, and is about to happen, to them.

As the authors explain early on in their piece, according to the tenets of terror-management theory (TMT), a popular conceptual framework for understanding human cognition in the face of threat and uncertainty, “individuals employ a wide range of cognitive and behavioral efforts to regulate the anxiety that mortality salience evokes,” the psychological goal being “maintaining self-esteem and acquiring meaning in life.”

According to this theory, then, someone facing imminent death might not necessarily express primarily sad or scared sentiments. Their mind might, in a sense, be working in overdrive to protect them from the fear evoked by their awful situation, and could be nudging them in the other direction — toward positivity.

To test this theory in a particularly intense context, Hirschmüller and Egloff used a grim database of inmates’ last statements available on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s website. They pulled all of the available, usable final statements from the website, 407 in total, and ran them through software that could identify certain features of the text, including the relative proportions and positive and negative words.

Here is one of the statements, as excerpted in the paper:

Yes, I do, uh at this time I would like to thank my parents who have been my pillar of strength throughout this. To my brothers and sisters and all my family members who have supported me and who have loved me despite my faults and imperfections. I would like to thank Pastor Williams for counseling me and guiding me. As I look to my right and I see the family of […]. I hope this brings you closure or some type of peace. I hope it helps his family, son and loved ones. This has been a long journey, one of enlightenment. It’s not the end, it’s only the beginning.” (Executed death row inmate 459)

The researchers did find evidence to support a terror-management explanation: Overall, when compared to both a big database of the content of the written and spoken communication of more than 23,000 individuals, as well as samples taken from undergraduates instructed to contemplate their death, and from actual suicide notes (some written before “successful” suicide attempts, others before unsuccessful ones), the inmates’ last words contained a significantly higher proportion of positive words.

In sum,” the authors write, “the final statements of Texas death row inmates conveyed extremely positive expressions that reflected the emotional processes of coping with mortality.” Hirschmüller and Egloff take this as evidence that the influence of terror-management psychological mechanisms helped cause people to feel and express strangely positive feelings in the face of imminent death.

That makes sense and is in line with a lot of past work on this subject. But it’s also interesting to think about some of the potentially complicating factors here. For one thing, how do you determine what baseline to compare a condemned prisoners’ last words to? There’s obviously no objectively right answer to this, but does it necessarily make sense to compare these statements to a giant corpus of all sorts of random communication? We’d expect such a corpus to contain a random-ish mishmash of emotion, so it isn’t immediately clear what it means that inmates’ last words are more positive. The suicide notes seem like a more relevant comparison, and here one could make the case that in instances in which someone wants to die, they might feel less of a lack of control than someone strapped to a gurney, meaning that terror-management influences don’t kick in as much (since one thing that triggers them is a lack of control over the situation).

Also, the last line of the study, in the section outlining its limitations, is really important: “Further, despite the extremely standardized execution protocol, the possible influence of situational characteristics (e.g., the actual presence or absence of one’s own loved ones and victim witnesses) during the execution could not be examined.” It’s obviously a bit oversimplistic to say someone is or isn’t influenced by terror management when they’re making a final statement; surely a combination of factors is at work. But it’s easy to imagine that loved ones play a big part here: If you were facing the most emotionally difficult and terrifying situation imaginable, and you saw or thought about a loved one, isn’t there a chance it would fill you with a rush of positive emotions?

So if the researchers found that the physical presence of a loved one, or their mention in a prepared statement, was correlated with positive sentiments, that would add a bit of nuance to the terror-management theory, well, theory. It would also be interesting to get a better sense of the differences between pre-written last statements and extemporaneous ones, and, even though it’s probably impossible to find out, to consider questions about the difference between how a condemned inmate feels and what sentiments they’re trying to publicly express. There’s a lot to unpack in these extremely potent, difficult-to-read final statements.

Psychologists Analyzed Prisoners’ Last Words