Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Life Is Good, but Death Ain't Bad Either: Counter-Intuitive Implicit Biases to Death in a Normative Population

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Life Is Good, but Death Ain't Bad Either: Counter-Intuitive Implicit Biases to Death in a Normative Population

Article excerpt

The concept of death plays a central role in much of human culture, including religion and the search for meaning in life (see Kastenbaum 2000; Neimeyer et al. 2004). Indeed, a body of research demonstrates that reminders of our own mortality impact our behavior in important ways, such as on our conceptualization of self and personal values (see Burke et al. 2010, for meta analysis). From a behavior-analytic perspective, the conceptualization of death is inherently interesting, because death itself cannot be experienced or consequated and is instead constructed through the metaphor of sleep. It is therefore somewhat difficult to account for our conceptualization of death in terms of direct contingencies (Hayes 1992). Relational Frame Theory (RFT: Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001) represents an attempt to account for such "emergent" or "derived" responding that occurs in the absence of a direct history of reinforcement (see Hughes & Barnes-Holmes, in press, for overview).

RFT's core concept of "arbitrarily applicable relational responding" has demonstrated much utility in conceptualizing and modeling complex verbal behaviors, such as death and suicide (Hayes, 1992), self (Foody, Barnes-Holmes, & Barnes-Holmes, 2012; McHugh, Barnes-Holmes, & Barnes-Holmes, 2004), and metaphor (Foody et al., 2014). However, more recently, RFT researchers have also become increasingly interested in assessing such relational responses "in flight" as they are emitted (see Hussey, Barnes-Holmes, & Barnes-Holmes, 2015). Biases in the strength of relational responding are more frequently referred to as "implicit attitudes" (De Houwer, Teige-Mocigemba, Spruyt, & Moors, 2009) and are assessed using such procedures as the Implicit Association Test (IAT: Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998) and the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP: Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, Stewart, & Boles, 2010). The IRAP, in particular, was created with the explicit intention of assessing the strength or persistence of relational responding.

A recent meta-analysis demonstrated that the IRAP has been used to explore a variety of clinically relevant domains, including self-esteem, depression, OCD, and substance abuse (Vahey, Nicholson, & Barnes-Holmes, 2015). This study represents the first study to explore the utility of the IRAP in exploring attitudes to death. While we initially planned to group together a series of studies on this topic for publication, our initial findings produced a counter-intuitive effect that seemed worth of dissemination at this point. Additionally, as will be elaborated upon in the discussion, our results may have implications for a more systematic analysis of the IRAP as a measure of strength of relational responding itself.

Previous research has shown that IATs that target implicit attitudes to self and death (i.e., using the categories self, others, death, and life) are prospectively predictive of self-harm and suicide attempts over and above established risk factors. These include clinical judgment; self-report measures of impulsivity and hopelessness; a variety of routine risk-assessment tools, such as the Manchester Self-Harm Rule (Cooper et al., 2006); and the SAD PERSONS assessment (Patterson, Dohn, Bird, & Patterson, 1983), and the individual's own self forecast (see Nock et al., 2010). However, it is important to note that the IAT does not permit the identification of individual, independent response biases. Indeed, the creators of the IAT have been assiduous in specifying that it is a measure of the relative (rather than absolute) strength of associations between categories. This has been argued for both conceptually (e.g., Greenwald et al., 1998; Nosek, Greenwald, & Banaji, 2007) and empirically (e.g., Nosek. Greenwald, & Banaji, 2005; Pinter & Greenwald, 2005) on numerous occasions. For example, these authors point out that an IAT that includes the stimuli "self," "others," "life," and "death" (e. …

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