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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00221

When you become a superman: Subliminal exposure to death-related stimuli enhances men’s physical force

 Naoaki Kawakami1*, Emi Miura2 and Masayoshi Nagai3
  • 1Faculty of Human Sciences, Shimane University, Japan
  • 2Graduate School of Education, Shimane University, Japan
  • 3College of Comprehensive Psychology, Ritsumeikan University, Japan

Research based on terror management theory (TMT) has consistently found that reminders to individuals about their mortality engender responses aimed at shoring up faith in their cultural belief system. Previous studies have focused on the critical role that the accessibility of death-related thought plays in these effects. Moreover, it has been shown that these effects occur even when death-related stimuli are presented without awareness, suggesting the unconscious effects of mortality salience. Because one pervasive cultural ideal for men is to be strong, we hypothesized that priming death-related stimuli would lead to increasing physical force for men, but not for women. Building on self-escape mechanisms from TMT, we propose that the mechanism that turns priming of death-related stimuli into physical exertion relies on the co-activation of the self with death-related concepts. To test this hypothesis, we subjected 123 participants to a priming task that enabled us to combine the subliminal priming of death-related words with briefly presented self-related words. Accordingly, three different conditions were created: a (control) condition in which only self-related stimuli were presented, a (priming) condition in which death-related words were subliminally primed but not directly paired with self-related stimuli, and a (priming-plus-self) condition in which death-related words were subliminally primed and immediately linked to self-related stimuli. We recorded handgrip force before and after the manipulations. Results showed that male participants in the priming-plus-self condition had a higher peak force output than the priming and control conditions, while this effect was absent among female participants. These results support the hypothesis that unconscious mortality salience, which is accompanied with self-related stimuli, increases physical force for men but not for women. The gender difference may reflect the cultural belief system, in which individuals are taught that men should be strong. Thus, the unconscious mortality salience produced by exposure to the death-related stimuli motivates need to conform to this internalized cultural standard.

Keywords: Terror management theory, unconscious processes, Subliminal priming, Physical force, Muscularity

Received: 07 Feb 2017; Accepted: 09 Feb 2018.

Edited by:

Ana-Maria Cebolla, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

Reviewed by:

Brian Day, University College London, United Kingdom
Lambros Lazuras, Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom  

Copyright: © 2018 Kawakami, Miura and Nagai. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Naoaki Kawakami, Shimane University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Matsue, Japan,