How do individuals emotionally cope with the imminent real-world salience of mortality? DeWall and Baumeister as well as Kashdan and colleagues previously provided support that an increased use of positive emotion words serves as a way to protect and defend against mortality salience of one’s own contemplated death. Although these studies provide important insights into the psychological dynamics of mortality salience, it remains an open question how individuals cope with the immense threat of mortality prior to their imminent actual death. In the present research, we therefore analyzed positivity in the final words spoken immediately before execution by 407 death row inmates in Texas. By using computerized quantitative text analysis as an objective measure of emotional language use, our results showed that the final words contained a significantly higher proportion of positive than negative emotion words. This emotional positivity was significantly higher than (a) positive emotion word usage base rates in spoken and written materials and (b) positive emotional language use with regard to contemplated death and attempted or actual suicide. Additional analyses showed that emotional positivity in final statements was associated with a greater frequency of language use that was indicative of self-references, social orientation, and present-oriented time focus as well as with fewer instances of cognitive-processing, past-oriented, and death-related word use. Taken together, our findings offer new insights into how individuals cope with the imminent real-world salience of mortality.
Without any doubt, the psychological “terror” felt in the situation of self-decided death by suicide is extreme. However, there may be one situation where individuals face an even greater amount of terror: directly before death by execution. This situation is characterized by a complete absence of controllability and a maximal subjection to powerful others who have the right to end one’s life. Consequently, last words as part of the execution process, visible as early as 1388 in England (Howell, 1809), provide a unique opportunity for exploring the predictions of TMT (Terror Management Theory).
Final words written or spoken shortly before death have fascinated people and have been collected in writing for a long time (e.g., Marvin, 1901; Brahms, 2010). Anything but banal word use when confronting death can offer researchers valuable insights into how people cope with existential threats and the human psyche in general (Pennebaker et al., 2003). Hence, final words in the form of rehearsed or impromptu sayings spoken by a dying person can reveal how individuals emotionally regulate the salience of imminent mortality. Here, we analyzed emotional language use in the final statements of executed Texas death row inmates and compared our findings with rates of positive emotion word use in general and in contexts involving contemplated death and attempted or actual death by suicide.
Intuitively, one might imagine that thoughts of one’s own death should evoke fear and anxiety as death may be associated with a broad range of frightening aspects (i.e., pain, loss of loved ones, unfulfilled goals; e.g., Niemeyer and Moore, 1994; Florian and Mikulincer, 1997). Psychological denial of death to escape the anxious awareness of our mortality constitutes one of the most basic drives in individual behavior (Becker, 1973). According to Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg et al., 1986), individuals employ a wide range of cognitive and behavioral efforts to regulate the anxiety that mortality salience evokes (Greenberg et al., 1997; Pyszczynski et al., 2004). These psychological defense mechanisms are aimed at maintaining self-esteem and acquiring meaning in life (Pyszczynski et al., 1999).
Empirical findings by DeWall and Baumeister (2007) suggest that an automatic orienting toward emotionally positive information and associations serves as a way to protect and defend against mortality salience.
In line with TMT’s proposed psychological defenses that are aimed at avoiding or ignoring the anxiety that mortality salience evokes (Pyszczynski et al., 1999), our findings contribute to the burgeoning literature that suggests elevations in positive emotional language use as an immediate way of coping with the immense threat of one’s imminent death (see DeWall and Baumeister, 2007; Kashdan et al., 2014). The presence of such a large amount of emotional positivity despite facing one’s actual death raises interesting psychological issues and seems clearly counterintuitive. In the fully constrained moments before execution while undergoing standardized execution procedures and being strapped to a gurney (Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 2012), death row inmates have little control over their situation with the exception of the opportunity to make a final statement. To defend against death anxiety, death row inmates seem to show an intense impulse to embrace emotional positivity. This might reflect underlying motivational mechanisms by which people value meaningful close others and focus on the moment rather than on the past or distant future, and it might originate from the perception of time limitations on life itself as postulated by SST (Carstensen et al., 1999). Thus, the public policy of allowing the death row inmate a final opportunity to speak to family and friends, those close to the victim(s), prison officials, as well as the general public may be viewed as one act through which death row inmates may linguistically regulate their intense emotions and experience some form of perceived control in the final moments of life (see also Vollum and Longmire, 2009; Ward, 2010). However, larger ethical, moral, and legal issues of capital punishment still remain (e.g., Bohm, 2008; for a database of exonerated, innocent death row inmates, see the Death Penalty Information Center, 2015a website).
Despite the robust findings of a tuning in to emotional positivity in death row inmates’ last statements reflected by a quantitative text analysis, several limitations need to be considered. First, we were not able to examine the defensive psychological mechanisms of death salience for nearly 23% of the death row inmates—those who chose to remain silent. Nevertheless, demographic comparisons provided evidence that these individuals did not differ significantly from the death row inmates who made final statements. Second, due to a lack of more detailed information on each individual death row inmate, contextual factors caused by death row confinement, behaviors prior to execution, and situational factors in the death chamber were not comprehensively taken into account. We could not rule out the possibility that the conditions of life on death row (i.e., solitary confinement while awaiting death usually for years) and its psychological consequences (see e.g., Johnson, 1979; Cunningham and Vigen, 2002) may have influenced the delivery of last words. Also, behaviors prior to execution (e.g., an apologetic confession to the offense) were not considered in the analyses of final words. According to prior research on the positive consequences of emotional disclosure (Pennebaker, 2003), it is possible that a positive psychological impact could have occurred for death row inmates who had confessed at some time prior to execution (Umbreit and Vos, 2000). Further, despite the extremely standardized execution protocol, the possible influence of situational characteristics (e.g., the actual presence or absence of one’s own loved ones and victim witnesses) during the execution could not be examined.
Source: Frontiers in Psychology, Sarah Hirschmüller and Boris Egloff, Department of Psychology, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Mainz, Germany, January 13, 2016
- Death in Texas: Analyzing the Last Words of 478 Death Row Prisoners, Jon Millward, Blog, Psychological subtleties, April 6, 2012
- Last exit: The crimes and final words of all prisoners Texas put to death in the last 3 years, Tony Ortega, The Raw Story, December 13, 2014