The Journal of Social Psychology, 1963

The Journal of Social Psychology, 1963, 59, 137-145.
Los Angeles State College
Although theologians, philosophers, and private citizens have been concerned,
sometimes to the point of preoccupation, with death, social scientists have
devoted little effort to investigating death attitudes and their consequences.
Jung perceived death as the central problem of the latter half of life, as sex
is of the earlier part; however, Freud’s followers tended to consider death
anxieties to he displaced castration anxieties or separation anxieties.
Until recently, little had appeared in the psychological literature on death
attitudes. In the 1930s, Bromberg and Schilder (4) and Middleton (10)
investigated the feelings of college students and other groups hy questionnaires
and interviews. They report that most 5s indicated little concern with death;
they were either unafraid of death or indifferent to it. Death appeared to be
a very unreal entity to most of them. Later, in 1948, Nagy (11) studied the
developmental changes in attitudes of children toward death, as reported by
Budapest schoolchildren. More recently, Alexander and Adlerstein (1) made
use of Nagy’s study to explore ages at which death anxieties are most acute
in children.
In the past few years, several studies on death attitudes have been conducted, many involving feelings of elderly persons. Swenson (12) learned
that only 10 per cent of a sample of 210 5s over sixty years of age admitted
to being afraid of death, data that corresponds to the studies of college
students mentioned above. 5s who tended to look forward to death, relatively speaking, with anticipation were those who evinced more acceptance of religious ideas. Swenson also determined that college-trained 5s
were either more positive or more overtly fearful; those with less education
tended to avoid consideration of death. Feifel (6) reported that many dying
patients wish to talk of death and are unhappy that so much effort is made
by family members and the medical profession to avoid such conversation.
In addition to the study of children, Alexander and Adlerstein have conducted other important work in this area. In 1957 they embedded death-
* Received in the Editorial Office on March 27, 1961.
associated words in a word association test administered to college students (3) ;
both time latency and galvanic skin response measures indicated significantly
more arousal on death-associated words than on comparable neutral words.
The authors felt that this refuted the earlier studies that students were
indifferent to thoughts of death. A later study (2) showed no quantitative
diflerences in measures of death anxieties between religious and irreligious
students, although the authors discuss numerous qualitative differences.
Additional evidence of the increasing interest in this area of investigation is
a study by Fulton (8) on the attitudes of the clergy toward funerals,
which received attention in a widely circulated national magazine. Also a
recent book of writings, edited by Feifel (7), contains articles by Jung,
Walter Kaufmann, Gardner Murphy, and others; topics ranged from death
attitudes of adolescents to death as portrayed in contemporary art.
The present study is an exploratory investigation of attitudes toward different methods of destroying life and the relationships of these attitudes to
religious beliefs. The variables selected as methods of destroying life include
birth control, euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment, and wartime killing;
the religious beliefs included are belief in God, belief in after-life and
religious affiliation: another variable included was overtly expressed fear of
The purpose of this study is three-fold: (a) to explore the relationships
among the variables related to destroying life, belief in God and after-life,
and fear of death; (b) to determine differences among religious groups for
each variable; and (c) to determine sex and age differences on each variable.
A form was prepared to measure attitudes toward the six death-related
issues and the two religious issues. The total form consisted of thirty-two
Likert-type items, sixteen of which dealt with such topics as federal aid to
education, segregation, public housing, etc. These items were added to
obscure the purpose of the form, which was titled Attitude on Social Issues;
none of the iSs perceived the nature of the attitude survey. The pertinent sixteen items related to Birth Control, Abortion, Euthanasia, Wartime Killing,
Capital Punishment, Fear of Death, Belief in After-life and Belief in God.
Two items, one worded positively and the other worded negatively, related
to each issue, the purpose being to eliminate any effect of response set. The
sequence of presentation of the thirty-two items was random.
Each S was asked to indicate his feeling on the issue by circling the symbols
SA, A, ?, D, or SD to show Strong Agreement through Strong Disagreement.
Equal-appearing intervals were assumed, and five points were given for a
favorable response, four for a moderately favorable response, etc. A favorable
response was considered to be SA when the item was worded positively or
SD when the item was worded negatively. The following items were used,
the number to the left of each statement being its position among the thirtytwo items:
4. In many instances, married couples should be encouraged to use birth
control devices.
7. Mercy-killing, assuming proper precautions are taken, will benefit
people on the whole.
9. Preventing conception by mechanical birth control devices is as wrong
or almost as wrong as taking a human life after birth.
10. Laws which provide the death penalty for crimes are morally wrong.
11. Although my definition of God may differ from that of others, I
believe there is a God.
14. Physical or mental illness, no matter how severe or hopeless, should
never be the basis for taking the life of the involved person.
16. Killing during war is just as indefensible as any other sort of killing.
18. As unfortunate as it is, killing during wartime may be justifiable.
19. The possibility that God exists today seems very unlikely.
23. If a mother’s life is seriously endangered, forced abortion of the fetus
may be necessary.
26. Life after death seems an improbable occurrence.
27. I find the prospect of my eventual death disturbing.
29. There is some sort of existence after our present life ends.
30. Forced abortion of the fetus is wrong, regardless of the health of
the mother or the social conditions involved.
31. In the long run, appropriate use of the death penalty for crimes will
benefit society.
32. I don’t think I am really afraid of death.
Following the attitude form, several biographical itehis were presented.
The 5s were asked to state age, sex, religious identification, and racial
1. Subjects ‘
The forms were distributed to approximately 220 students in five advanced
psychology classes at Los Angeles State College, a state-supported college near
downtown Los Angeles granting the bachelor and masters degrees in most
academic fields. A total of 210 Ss returned forms sufficiently complete for
The 5s ranged in age from 18 to 65 with a median of 28. Since four
of the five classes were conducted in the evening, the great majority of 5s
were involved with full-time positions in the community, and attended college
on a part-time basis. Although obviously not a random sample of the Los
Angeles area, they probably more nearly represent the community in race,
religion, and social class than most college student samples.
A breakdown of 5s by religion shows 93 Protestants, 38 Catholics, 25 Jews,
and 35 Atheist-Agnostics (these two groups were combined since observation
indicated no real differences in their responses) ; the remainder (19) gave no
classifiable religious preference. Negroes in the sample numbered 24; people
of Asian ancestry totalled six; and 163 were Caucasian; 17 5s did not state
racial background. The sample contained 130 men and 67 women; 13 did
not supply this information.
2. Data Analysis
Since each variable was measured by two items on a five-point scale, the
possible range of scores was two to 10. This restricted range led to several
highly truncated distributions. Also, because of the nature of the items, data
were heavily skewed in several instances. Working within these limitations,
three types of data analysis were possible. First, a matrix of tetrachoric
correlations based on a median split between each combination of variables
was computed. The method of computation followed Edwards (5); the
level of significance was established by determining the significance level
for product-moment correlations based on less than one-half the number
of 5s as suggested in Guilford (9) (the sample N was 210) while the
level of significance utilized was established for Pearson product-moment
correlations with N’s of 100.
Second, each of the four religious groups was compared with each of the
others on each variable. The significance of the differences between means in
each instance was established by a Mest.
Third, sex differences and age differences in responses to each variable were
determined by /-tests.
Results may be divided into three sections, data dealing with relationships
among variables, data dealing with religious differences, and data involving
sex and age differences.
The inter-variable correlation matrix is shown in Table 1. Of the twentyeight correlations computed, ten were significant at the .01 level of confidence
and five were significant at the .05 level of confidence. The data were reanalyzed omitting Catholic 5s on the possibility that the relationships were
a function of the attitudes of this group. The recomputed correlations showed
negligible differences from the initial ones.
Birth Eutha- Abor- punish- Aftercontrol nasia tion Fear Killing ment life God
Approve of
birth control
Approve of
Approve of
Fear of death
Approve of
wartime killing
Approve of
Believe in life
after death
Believe in God
X .31* *
-.1 6
-.19 *
• Significant at the .05 level of confidence.
** Significant at the .01 level of confidence.
Several pertinent observations may be made from the matrix:
1. Approval of birth control, of abortion, and of euthanasia consistently
and significantly correlate with each other. This appears to be a factor which
might be termed “Social Liberalism.”
2. Belief in God, belief in after-life, and approval of capital punishment
also are consistently and significantly correlated with each other. They appear
to form a factor which might be termed “Religious Justice.”
3. Eight of the nine correlations between variables in the Social Liberalism
factor and those in the Religious Justice factor are negative, six of them significantly. This would appear to increase the probability of these being reliable factors.
4. Approval of wartime killing and of capital punishment correlate sig-
nificantly with each other. Approval of euthanasia correlates positively, although not significantly, with both. The latter correlations appear to have
importance in view of the fact that they provide the only deviations
from the consistently negative correlations of the Social Liberalism variables
with all other variables. A common thread in these three variables is that
they each favor destruction of adult human beings under stipulated conditions. They will be referred to as the Destruction Accepting factor.
5. Fear of death correlates significantly (and negatively) only with
approval of abortion, indicating that those who express overt fear of death
are opposed to abortion; the author finds this relationship difficult to interpret
in light of the remainder of the data. Of all the variables investigated, it
seems likely that fear of death was most contaminated by the extensive use
of defense mechanisms.
The comparison of death attitudes between religious groupings is shown in
Table 2. On the variables constituting the Social Liberalism factor, the
Jews and the Atheist-Agnostics are consistently the most accepting, followed
by the Protestants and the Catholics in that order. On the Religious Justice
variables, the sequence is Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and Atheist-Agnostic on
all three variables. On two of the three variables of the third factor (Killing
and Capital Punishment), the sequence from favorable to unfavorable was
Catholic, Protestant, Atheist-Agnostic, and Jew, which corresponds in general
to the sequence for the Religious Justice variables. However, the trend for
acceptance of euthanasia corresponds to that for Social Liberalism variables.
On the variables of Birth Control and Abortion, the only statistically significant differences are between Catholics and each of the other groupings.
However, in spite of these differences, inspection of Table 2 indicates that
the Catholics tended to be favorable to both ideas. A score of “6” would be
neutral, and the Catholics are on the favorable side of neutral on both issues.
Approximately 50 per cent more Catholics favored each of the issues than
opposed them, but the opposition tended to have extreme scores, while those
favorably inclined had moderate scores; thus, the means were computed to
be only slightly on the favorable side of neutral.
It is readily observable that the Catholics and the Protestants were significantly more favorably disposed toward believing in God and in an after-life
than were the Jews and the Atheist-Agnostics. The differences between the
two Christian groups and the Atheist-Agnostics is not surprising. Also the
fact that the Jewish religion takes no strong stand on after-life could readily
account for the difference between Jews and non-Jews on afterlife. The
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relative lack of an indicated belief in God by the Jevi^ish Ss may either be a
real diflerence or it may reflect the tendency of Jewish 5s who were religiously
agnostic but identified as ethnic Jews to check the category of Jew. If the
latter is the case, some individuals who are philosophic atheists or agnostics
may be contained with the Jewish category in the sample.
No significant relationships were obtained between scores on any of the
eight variables and age. In investigating sex differences, men were significantly more accepting of wartime killing than women (P < .01). The
remaining seven variables, however, showed extremely small sex differences.
Attitudes toward methods of destroying life appear to be influenced by a
generalized attitude toward life, by religious convictions, and probably by
other personality variables. Only in the third factor, containing Euthanasia,
Capital Punishment, and Wartime Killing, does a consistency toward destruction of life occur; this factor is also partially obscured by the tendency
of the Catholics to be high on Capital Punishment and low on Euthanasia,
while the Atheist-Agnostics are low on Capital Punishment and high on
Euthanasia. A future study might investigate the Destruction Accepting
factor with a more homogeneous population.
The variables of Birth Control, Euthanasia, and Abortion are often assumed
to be “humanitarian” reasons for causing life to cease; these issues receive
their highest support from the Jews, frequently described as belonging to a
humanistic religion, and the Atheist-Agnostics, who lacking a belief in God,
often turn to humanism. On the other hand. Wartime Killing and Capital
Punishment are punitive bases for depriving individuals of life, but may be
considered as necessary and just under appropriate conditions. cSs who, by
virtue of placing their faith in God, need place less faith in man, may be
more concerned with justice and less concerned with humanitarianism.
The lack of differences between religious groups in fear of death is worth
noting (Table 2). Since results here not only lack significance statistically,
but may be contaminated by the extensive use of defense mechanisms, this
provides a fruitful area for further research, probably by projective as well
as survey methods.
A study was conducted exploring attitudes of 210 adult college students
toward approaches to the destruction of life. Variables measured were
attitudes toward birth control, euthanasia, abortion, wartime killing, capital
punishment, fear of death, God and after-life; data were also obtained relative
to religious identification, racial background, age, and sex. Data were an-
alyzed relative to relationships among attitudes toward the eight issues; differences among reh’gious, age, and sex groups on each issue were also determined.
Three factors appeared to emerge; {a) a Social Liberalism factor including
acceptance of Birth Control, Euthanasia, and Abortion; (*) a Religious
Justice factor, including acceptance of God, After-life, and Capital Punishment; and {c) a Destruction Accepting factor, including Wartime Killing
and Capital Punishment with the possibility that Euthanasia is also related.
Catholics were found to be most favorably disposed overtly toward all three
variables in the second factor and to the first two variables in the third
factor; Jews and Atheist-Agnostics were most favorably disposed toward the
variables on the first factor. With one exception, sex differences and age
on each variable proved to be non-significant.
1. ALEXANDER, I. E., & ALDERSTEIN, A. M, Affective responses to the concept of
1958 93° 1^67^177 *’°° ” ‘^•'”d’-en and early adolescents. J. Genet. Psychol.,
^- “T ;;• P^^’V^””* “I’S'””- ^” f”fel, H. (Ed.), The Meaning of Death.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959. Pp. 271-283. ^'”»” .
3. ALEXANDER, I. E.,CoLLEy,R. S., & ADLERSTEIN, A. M. Is death a matter of indifference? J. of Psychol., 1957, 43, 277-283.
‘• XWJ-L1’I936!’IS , ^25^’^ ‘”””‘ ” °’ psychoneurotics toward death.
5. EDWARDS, A. L. Statistical Methods for the Behavioral Sciences. New YorkRinehart, 1954.
6. FE’FEL, H Attitudes toward death in some normal and mentally ill populations.
P 114 13″” Meaning of Death. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.
7. FEIFEL, H. (Ed.) The Meaning of Death. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.
8. FULTON, R Attitudes of clergymen toward funerals and funeral directors in
the United States. Speech presented to the National Funeral Directors Association, St. Louis, October, 1959.
Statistics in Psychology and Education. New York:
3% child’s theories concerning death. /. Genet. Psychol., 1948, 73,
^^’ ^^”199-402″ ^’ ‘^”””‘*^’ ^”^””‘^ ””‘”*• ^””””S * e aged. Minn. Med., 1959,
Psychology Department
Los Angeles State College
Los /Angeles 32, California

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