South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham joined Governor Nikki Haley Monday in calling for the removal of the state capitol’s Confederate flag. They join the growing throng of voices demanding the flag be taken down in the wake of last week’s killings in Charleston. The cases that these voices have presented are compelling. One is left wondering how anyone could defend the preservation of a still potent symbol of American plunder, hatred, and treason.

Psychology may provide an explanation. Those who would see the flag hoisted high cling to it for the same reason anyone clings to the symbolic world: because it shields people from their existential fears and insecurities. This is not to say that protecting a symbol like the Confederate flag is justified. It is merely to illustrate the incredible power that symbols exert on the human psyche.

In 2010, social psychologist Clay Routledge wrote about the psychological power of symbols after Florida pastor Terry Jones announced his intentions to set fire to copies of the Quran. The events led Routledge to address why such threats can have such an impact. “In short,” he wrote in Psychology Today, “ we invest heavily in the symbolic cultural institutions and identifications, in part, because they help insulate us from basic fears about our mortal predicament.”

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The concept Routledge is referring to is what social psychologists call Terror Management Theory, or TMT. University of Arizona psychologist Jeff Greenberg, who helped formalize TMT in the ’80s, described the theory to me in greater detail, via e-mail.

“The basic idea is that, from a scientific perspective, each of us humans is just an organism, an animal, that wants to continue to survive but ultimately is no more significant or enduring than any other living creature,” says Greenberg. But unlike other animals, we are burdened with the knowledge of our mortality. TMT maintains that we cope with this knowledge by viewing ourselves within the context of enduring symbolic systems like political, religious, regional, and national entities. This, says Greenberg, lets us feel like we’re special beings who exist in a world of meaning, significance, and permanence.

He uses himself as an example: “I am Jeff Greenberg, author, psychologist, American, New Yorker.” He says he identifies with these constructs because he can believe these symbolic identities will persist beyond his physical existence.

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Hundreds of studies from the last three decades have lent TMT empirical weight. Two common observations from these investigations are especially relevant, in light of the Confederate flag’s inglorious history, and the unfolding situation in South Carolina. The first is that reminders of one’s mortal state (what pyschologists call “mortality salience”) tend to cause test subjects to cling to the symbolic world, often with prejudicial results. Mortality salience has been shown to increase Americans’ negativity towards Jews and Israel; young adults’ dislike for elderly people; heterosexual males’ dislike for gay men; and American Christian medical students’ inattentiveness to the medical needs of a Muslim patient.

“Perhaps the clearest implication of the entire TMT empirical literature,” Greenberg and his colleagues write in a chapter of the recently published Advances in Motivation Science, is that “concerns with mortality contribute to prejudice and intergroup conflict.”

The second salient finding is that the inverse of the first observation is also true: Evidence suggests threatening a symbol of somebody’s identity also threatens that person’s sense of lasting significance. In 2007, for example, psychologist Jeff Schimel and his colleagues at the University of Alberta observed that death-related thoughts among creationist test subjects increased after they read an article that presented evolutionary evidence against creationism. (Read more about the paradigm of Death-Thought Accessibility, or DTA, here.)

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Similarly, when researchers led by psychologist Florette Cohen investigated American attitudes towards symbols of Islam—an experiment inspired by by the controversy over the proposed building of a mosque at Ground Zero—they found that thinking of a mosque, but not a church or synagogue, made death-related thoughts more accessible to the consciousness of non-Muslim American test subjects.

Greenberg suspects a similar tension is at work in the minds of those who would see the Confederate flag retain its position above the South Carolina statehouse, and the statehouses of several other Southern states. For anyone who relies on the notion that the South and what it stands for will live on, or rise again, any threat to a longstanding symbol of that region represents a direct threat to his or her own sense of significance. The flag isn’t just iconography; it’s an existential security blanket.

“Strip a proud Southerner of the symbols that represent their identity and they are just vulnerable, transient creatures, so they resist such changes,” says Greenberg. But the Confederate flag, as a symbol, as a totem of white superiority and state-sanctioned terrorism flown over government grounds, is a problem. “Of course we all need identities and symbols to feel protected and more than mere mortal creatures,” says Greenberg. But “the hope is people can invest in identities and symbols that don’t impinge on or undermine the claims of enduring significance of people with different identities who rely on different symbols.”


Examples of humans seeking security through symbols and social significance are not limited to Terror Management Theory. They exist everywhere, in the form of what sociologists and religion scholars call “totems.” French philosopher and social psychologist Émile Durkheim defined the totem not only as “the external and tangible form of what we have called the... god,” but as “the symbol of that particular society we call the clan. It is its flag; it is the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself, the visible mark of its personality.”

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We can modify Durkheim’s definition endlessly by replacing “god” with other entities—be they brands, political institutions, or, as Michael Serazio convincingly argues in a 2013 essay at The Atlantic, pro sports teams:

In fandom, as in religious worship, our social connections are brought to life, in the stands as in the pews... as Durkheim long ago noticed, “Members of each clan try to give themselves the external appearance of their totem... When the totem is a bird, the individuals wear feathers on their heads.” Ravens fans surely understand this.

We know also from pro sports what happens when a totem is threatened. The Washington Redskins organization has fought to defend the use of a symbol steeped in unambiguous racism. It is no coincidence that their objections, like those proffered in defense of the Confederate flag, have foregrounded concepts like “pride,” “tradition,” and “heritage,” while ignoring the legacy of prejudice and discrimination inherent in the nickname.

We also know from this experience how challenging it can be to abandon a symbol and move forward. The Washington, D.C., team has fought for decades, foolishly and shamefully and with all the tact and sensitivity that god gave the common potato, to preserve the name and logo of its franchise—but it has, thus far, done so successfully. There’s little hope that doing away with the Confederate flag will be any easier.


In 1995, Greenberg and his colleagues devised a series of experiments in which test subjects were presented with problem-solving tasks, the successful completion of which necessitated the unsuitable use of a “cherished cultural symbol.” In one task, test subjects were asked to mount a crucifix on a wall, but were provided nothing with which to drive the nail besides the cross itself. The other task required test subjects to separate sand from a black dye using the American flag as a sieve. The hypothesis: reminding subjects of their mortality by having them write about death before the task would make it more difficult for them to use cultural icons in an inappropriate way.

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In the end, mortality salience had no effect on the actual use of the objects. But among test subjects who were reminded of their mortality, “it did increase the amount of time required to solve the problems, the number of alternative solutions generated, and the extent to which subjects expressed reluctance to use the icons.” In this light, the test subjects’ reluctance mirrors the reluctance of those who have, for more than 150 years, delayed the removal of the Confederate flag. But the two scenarios differ in suitability and effect: Abandoning that hateful symbol will not solve the problems for which it stands, but it’s a big step in the right direction, and certainly appropriate.


Contact the author at rtgonzalez@io9.com and @rtg0nzalez. Top image: Confederate flag supporters demonstrate on the north steps of the capitol building in April 2000 in Columbia, South Carolina. Photo by Erik Perel, AFP/Getty Images.