Terror management theory (TMT) suggests that people adhere more strongly to cultural worldviews to assuage their anxiety and bolster their self-esteem when faced with reminders of their own mortality (mortality salience). These cultural worldviews may include hostility towards outgroups, such as criminals, social transgressors, and racial minority groups. This study investigated whether reminders of the COVID-19 pandemic induced mortality salience (MS) and whether these reminders influenced the severity of punitive judgments suggested for hypothetical offenders. It also investigated whether mortality salience influenced people to suggest harsher punitive sentences for offenders belonging to racial minority groups. After reading a COVID-19 related mortality salience or control passage, participants (N = 210) suggested jail time and bail amount for two hypothetical criminals, one Caucasian and one African American via an online survey. The study found that people experiencing mortality salience were less punitive towards criminals than those not experiencing mortality salience, and they prescribed relatively equal sentences for both the African-American and Caucasian offenders. Participants not experiencing mortality salience prescribed harsher sentences for both criminals and were more punitive towards the Caucasian offender when prescribing bail amounts. These findings ran counter to the assumptions of terror management theory, suggesting that mortality salience may promote prosocial behavior rather than discriminatory ingroup adherence in jurors under specific conditions.
Lucas-Marinelli, Autumn, "Pandemic-Induced Mortality Salience and Jury Decision-Making" (2020). Undergraduate Student Research Awards. 68.