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A social psychologist studies how we perceive people who have died. His conclusion: We need heroes. 

After Death

For the past two years, Scott T. Allison, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Richmond, has been busy studying a seemingly bleak subject: people's perceptions of the dead.

A Pittsburgh native who has taught at UR since 1987, Allison became interested in the subject while teaching a cross-disciplinary core course to freshmen. While he and his students read epics from across the world, Allison was struck by a common theme.

No matter where you are in history or where you are around the globe, people really seem to connect to stories about dead heroes like Odysseus or Ulysses, or to equivalent Japanese heroes, he says. We resonate to heroes, particularly dead ones who made great sacrifices, who had to overcome enormous obstacles. That got me thinking [about] how we perceive the dead.

Allison, 42, is focusing on the subject while on a yearlong sabbatical at Virginia Commonwealth University. Style recently talked with him about his studies.

Style: What have you learned about people that most surprises you?

Allison: What most surprised me is that there was any difference at all in our impressions of the living versus the dead. In the area of social psychology, we study how we form impressions of people. And the assumption has always been, for decades in our field, that it shouldn't matter whether the person has red hair or brown hair, is tall or short, is living or dead, there are basic laws of nature in terms of how we come to know people. And they hold across all different kinds of people. And the surprising finding here is that it ain't true. It matters whether the person has a pulse or not. To me, that's startling and fascinating.

How do you test?

What I've done primarily is use college students perceptions of the dead. I've done some studies in older adults as well, and the results were very similar. Typically I give them information about either a hypothetical person or an actual person, either living or dead. In the first studies I did, I kept all of the information constant. All I varied was whether the person was living or dead. Some of the test subjects read about a person, actual or fictitious, who was alive, and then others, about someone who was dead.

I recorded their perceptions: Tell me what you think of this person, using a trait rating on a scale of 1 to 10; give me some adjectives to describe the person; what do you remember about the person? The results were very clear: They formed more favorable judgments about the dead person than about the equivalent living person. They respected the dead person more; they thought the person was more competent, more intelligent. They were more inspired by the person.

That gets tied in with the epic literature: They're more motivated by the life story of a dead person than by the equivalent life story of a living person. And that struck me as really interesting. I think there's this human need to take lessons from the dead, to learn from the dead. We sort of take for granted the living. As soon as someone who's a good person dies, that's when we begin to appreciate them. We all sort of intuitively feel that, and it's an unfortunate thing, but now we have experimental evidence showing it.

What have been some more of your findings?

Oh, they're fascinating. Age of death makes a difference: Someone who dies young is viewed more favorably than someone who dies old. You can see that with John F. Kennedy Jr. and Princess Diana. It strikes a chord, people who die before their time. We especially seem to have this need to grasp meaning from the death of a young person.

Another finding is that our impressions of the dead tend to be more stable than our impressions of the living. In other words, once someone dies, our views of them tend to be frozen in time. People die and their image is frozen. But people's impressions of you and me change all the time.

Another finding we've uncovered is that cause of death makes a difference. We've had people form impressions of individuals either by suicide, by murder, by accident or by cancer. We call that the death-positivity bias. Where do you think we get the lowest positivity bias? There's no positivity there with suicide. The cancer death attracts the greatest positivity bias. It may be sympathy, but we also think that when you die from cancer you put up a heroic struggle. And people apparently get a lot of points for enduring pain and suffering. We don't know for sure yet - it's just speculation.

If you are a competent or incompetent person, it doesn't matter: When you die, you will be viewed more favorably than when you are alive. So your level of competence or intelligence doesn't make any difference. Your level of morality does make a difference. If you are immoral and you die, you are viewed worse than if you are immoral and living. We get a death-extremitization bias: If you're moral or immoral, you are going to be viewed more extremely in whatever direction. So people like Hitler or Osama bin Laden, once they die, are viewed worse than when they were even living.

What do we gain by understanding people's perceptions of the dead?

I look at data and use it to refine theories, build better theories and form better impressions of people. I can look at that as an end in itself. [My colleague, Dafna Eylon, a professor in the UR business school,] looks at the more practical, applied side of the data. How can companies use this information to manipulate customers into buying their products and services? How can we inspire employees to be more productive? Our data suggests you can inspire people to work harder, to motivate them. That's one more shallow use of the data. I would like to think larger, think about September 11 and how can we make the world not just a more profitable place but a better place. That's a tough one, and IOm still grappling with that.

How can those perceptions help us understand the reaction to September 11, especially the outpouring of emotion about the New York firefighters?

ItOs the death-positivity bias heightened to its absolute maximum. Remember the morality finding people who are moral, who die a moral death, who die performing a moral action - our views of them go off the charts. They made the ultimate sacrifice. So the 300 firefighters got a lot more sympathy than the thousands of office workers who were just there doing their jobs when the towers came down.

That's very consistent with our findings. Remember the Oklahoma City bombings: What was the most vivid image, photograph? The firefighter carrying a dead baby. This is consistent with our findings, that people who die young are glorified, venerated, honored the most. This goes back to those epic readings. We need heroes. They do so much for us, they sustain us, the inspire us, they give us hope in a world where hope is in short supply. I think this death-positivity bias is a source of that hope, and we're just beginning to understand that. Can we use that source of hope to make the world a better place? I think
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