Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Dr. Andrew Mienaltowski (Director), Dr. Jacqueline Pope-Tarrence, Dr. Aaron Wichman

Degree Program

Department of Psychology

Degree Type

Master of Arts


Past research has examined the many ways individuals behave in response to unconscious primes. For instance, unconsciously activating stereotypes leads people to exhibit behavior that parallels the target stereotype (e.g., Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996; Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1998). Priming methodology has also been extended to inducing mortality salience, such that specific behaviors emerge in response to thinking about one’s own death. Two theories, socioemotional selectivity theory and terror management theory, hypothesize how individuals cope with thoughts about the end of life. The present study attempted to extend past research by comparing older and younger adults’ responses to unconscious mortality salience.

Fifty-nine younger adults and 52 older adults were randomly assigned to one of two prime conditions: death prime or negative prime. The unconscious primes were administered through word searches, which contained 20 target words related to each prime. Defenses to the primes were assessed via suitability ratings and reaction times to a picture-caption task, which contained both neutral and emotional (positive and negative) captions paired with neutral pictures. A defense was operationalized as higher suitability ratings and faster reaction times to the positive captions, as well as lower suitability ratings and slower reaction times to the negative captions. Based on terror management theory, it was expected that individuals who were primed with death would display specific defensive behavioral responses as compared to those who were primed with negativity, regardless of age. Socioemotional selectivity theory, however, predicts that these defenses may also emerge when older adults are primed with negativity due to the increased tendency for older adults, relative to younger adults, to automatically implement default emotion regulatory goals.

Analyses revealed that both younger and older adults embraced the neutral and positive captions after being primed with death. Participants primed with negativity were also more likely to embrace positivity. Age differences emerged such that younger adults were faster when reacting to emotional captions in the death condition than in the negative condition. Conversely, older adults primed with negativity reacted faster to emotional captions than those primed with death. Implications for terror management theory and socioemotional selectivity theory are discussed. Overall, both young and older adults displayed defenses to prime-activated threats of death and negativity. The implementation of death-related defenses was stronger for younger adults than the implementation of negativity-related defenses, but the opposite was true for older adults.


Developmental Psychology | Psychology