An Existential Function of Enemyship: Evidence That People Attribute Influence to Personal and Political Enemies to Compensate for Threats to Control

Daniel Sullivan, Mark J. Landau, Zachary K. Rothschild

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

124 Scopus citations

Abstract

Perceiving oneself as having powerful enemies, although superficially disagreeable, may serve an important psychological function. On the basis of E. Becker's (1969) existential theorizing, the authors argue that people attribute exaggerated influence to enemies as a means of compensating for perceptions of reduced control over their environment. In Study 1, individuals dispositionally low in perceived control responded to a reminder of external hazards by attributing more influence to a personal enemy. In Study 2, a situational threat to control over external hazard strengthened participants' belief in the conspiratorial power of a political enemy. Examining moderators and outcomes of this process, Study 3 showed that participants were especially likely to attribute influence over life events to an enemy when the broader social system appeared disordered, and Study 4 showed that perceiving an ambiguously powerful enemy under conditions of control threat decreased perceptions of external risk and bolstered feelings of personal control.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)434-449
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Volume98
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 1 2010
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • control
  • enemyship
  • existential psychology
  • risk perception
  • system belief

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science

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