The Appeal of Tragedy: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Emotional Response

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The experiment reported in this article assessed the terror management explanation of the appeal of tragedy. From this perspective, vicarious experience of tragedy, such as through film and literature, provides a safe way of approaching the fear associated with one's own mortality. Thus, we hypothesized that reminding participants of their mortality would increase liking for and emotional response to a tragic excerpt from a novel. Participants were randomly assigned to answer open-ended questions about either their own death or a neutral topic and then read two excerpts from Ernest Hemingway novels, one tragic and one nontragic in content. In support of the terror management hypothesis, participants in the mortality salience condition responded more emotionally to, and were more touched by, the tragic excerpt, found the nontragic excerpt less enjoyable, and cared less for the female character in the nontragic passage than did the control participants.

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Media Psychology, v. 1, issue 4, p. 313-329