Death anxiety and experiences of transcendence : peak experiences of skydivers
Purslow, Carol E.
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Terror Management Theory (TMT) suggests that human beings battle to protect ourselves from the potential terror resulting from the juxtaposition of our need for selfpreservation and our unique human ability to realize that we cannot avoid death. Over 150 studies have shown that when people are primed with the awareness of mortality they grasp onto their cultural world view more tenaciously than when they are primed with another unpleasant stimulus (i.e., show "cultural world view defense"). Applying the principles ofTMT, the first purpose of the present research was to examine whether the amount of peak experiences reduce the tendency to show cultural world view defense (an indicator of unconscious death fear) after a death prime. The second purpose was to examine a new model of implicit spirituality, by testing proposed relationships between implicit spirituality, peak experiences and intrinsic religiosity, and by testing whether peak experiences and/or intrinsic religiosity mediate the relationship between implicit spirituality and conscious and/or unconscious death fears. Skydivers were chosen as the primary participants for this research because of their unique characteristics in the context of TMT research. Previous research suggests that veteran skydivers have peak experiences as they skydive, and I assumed that their peak experiences would not be influenced by intrinsic religious beliefs. Novice skydivers may have their implicit spirituality brought forth because of their proximity to possible death. The willingness of both groups to place themselves close to death allowed their reactions to unconscious and conscious death fears to be assessed in a real setting. Novice skydivers' proximity to death made them an ideal group to study to see whether intrinsic religiosity mediated the relationship between their implicit spirituality and conscious and/or unconscious death fears. One hundred and twenty-five people participated in this research: 38 veteran and 46 novice skydivers, as well as 41 people who accompanied them to the drop zone. Of these, 23 veterans, 19 novices, and 22 friends returned a follow-up packet of questionnaires three weeks later. As expected, the veterans' unconscious death fear scores remained stable from pre-jump to post-jump (after the death prime), and three weeks later, whereas the novices' scores increased, but only marginally. As predicted, the novice skydivers' implicit spirituality was significantly higher than the veterans' and was negatively correlated with their conscious death fear, which was not mediated by their intrinsic religiosity. Only the novices' follow-up (trait) implicit spirituality correlated negatively with their pre-jump unconscious death fear. Among both groups of skydivers, there were significant relationships between implicit spirituality and peak experiences, and although the novices were significantly higher on peak experiences after the jump, peak experiences did not mediate the relationship between implicit spirituality and unconscious death fear for either group. In both groups follow-up intrinsic religiosity correlated with implicit spirituality. Peak experiences and intrinsic religiosity were not related with one another, suggesting that these are different ways of accessing an implicit spirituality. Results imply that implicit spirituality was brought forth (in the case of novice skydivers who were consciously close to death) and can be accessed through both peak experiences and intrinsic religiosity.