Cancer and the Threat of Death: The Cognitive Dynamics of Death Thought Suppression and Its Impact on Behavioral Health Intentions

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terror management, health threats, construct accessibility, cancer thoughts, death thoughts, screening intentions, cognitive associations, contemplation, suppression, cognitive load

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Five studies examined the cognitive association between thoughts of cancer and thoughts of death and their implication for screening intentions. Study 1 found that explicit contemplation of cancer did not increase death-thought accessibility. In support of the hypothesis that this reflects suppression of death-related thoughts, Study 2 found that individuals who thought about cancer exhibited elevated death-thought accessibility under high cognitive load, and Study 3 demonstrated that subliminal primes of the word cancer led to increased death-thought accessibility. Study 4 revealed lower levels of death-thought accessibility when perceived vulnerability to cancer was high, once again suggesting suppression of death-related thoughts in response to conscious threats associated with cancer. Study 5 extended the analysis by finding that after cancer salience, high cognitive load, which presumably disrupts suppression of the association between cancer and death, decreased cancer-related self-exam intentions. Theoretical and practical implications for understanding terror management, priming and suppression, and responses to cancer are discussed.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v. 92, issue 1, p. 12-29