Saturday 1 October 2016

Death row inmates’ final words are more 'positive than negative'

The researchers worked with a database of 407 inmates’ last words between 1982 and 2015

Ashely Cowburn

Published 04/02/2016 | 10:53

The entrance to a 'death chamber' at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
The entrance to a 'death chamber' at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Inmates on death row facing an imminent execution use more positive than negative words in their final statements, according to new research.

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In a new paper, Frontiers in Psychology, researchers Dr. Sarah Hirschmüller and Dr. Boris Egloff examined the emotional language used by prisoners, minutes before their executions, in the US state of Texas.

Comparing positivity in these last words with those who “contemplated death and attempted or actual death by suicide”, the psychologists found that the inmates on death row were much more likely to display positive emotions as they faced their impending executions. 

The report, they add, contributes to the growing literature suggesting elevations in positive language as coping strategy for the immense threat of death.

In order to test this theory the researchers worked with a database of 407 inmates’ last words between 1982 and 2015 – all of which are available on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website. Using the popular terror-management-theory (TMT) – a framework used to examine human reasoning in a situation of threat or uncertainty – the authors attempted to investigate how inmates on death row seek to make sense of what is about to happen to them.

“Initiatively, one might imagine that thoughts of one’s own death should evoke fear and anxiety as death may be associated with a broad range of frightening aspects,” the authors of the report write.

They add: “Without any doubt, the psychological ‘terror’ felt in the situation of self-decided death by suicide is extreme. However, there may be one situation where individuals face an even greater amount of terror: directly before death by execution. This situation is characterized by a complete absence of controllability and a maximal subjection to powerful others who have the right to end one’s life.”

The report concludes: “Considering real deaths by both execution and suicide, it remains an important task to further investigate why individuals facing execution use an even greater number of positive emotion words.

“Psychologists, taking account of the perspectives of death row inmates, victims, and society as a whole, should continue to shed light on individuals’ immediate coping with human mortality reflected in their words before death.”

The psychologists claim that their research offers “new insights into how individuals cope with the imminent real-world salience of mortality”

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