Play it safe or go for the gold? A terror management perspective on self-enhancement and self-protective motives in risky decision making

Mark J. Landau, Jeff Greenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

56 Scopus citations

Abstract

Terror management theory (TMT) posits that bolstering self-esteem buffers mortality concerns; accordingly, in past research, heightening mortality salience (MS) increases self-enhancement. However, risky self-esteem-relevant decisions often present a choice between enhancing self-esteem by striving for excellence and protecting self-esteem by avoiding potential failure. Which strategy is preferred under MS? Combining TMT with insights from Steele, Spencer, and Lynch's (1993) resource model, the authors hypothesized and found that MS leads high, but not low, self-esteem participants faced with a risky decision to pursue opportunities for excellence despite substantial risk of failure (Studies 1 and 2); in Study 3, using a more impactful decision, this effect was replicated and it was furthermore found that mortality-salient low-self-esteem participants become more risk-averse. Furthermore, in Study 2, a self-affirmation prime, previously shown to reduce MS-induced defenses, eliminated the self-enhancement effect among high-self-esteem participants. Implications for understanding self-esteem, TMT, and risky decision making are briefly discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1633-1645
Number of pages13
JournalPersonality and social psychology bulletin
Volume32
Issue number12
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 1 2006

Keywords

  • Decision making
  • Resource model
  • Self-enhancement
  • Self-esteem
  • Self-protection
  • Terror management theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology

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