Dr. Brian Burke

Assistant Professor, Psychology Department

Would a Democrat make a Republican drink more vile hot sauce, or vice versa, when the decision-maker is thinking of death? Believe it or not, that question has the potential to give answers to many of the important issues facing the world today, such as terrorism, prejudice, and why the Colorado Rockies matter to people.

The hot sauce experiment investigated how people’s actions changed when thinking of their own death. Results showed that a Democrat would indeed try to make a Republican drink more hot sauce (and vice versa) if the Democrat was thinking of death. The next question is: Why?

For Fort Lewis College Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Brian Burke— teacher, psychotherapist, researcher, husband, and father—the “why” is just as fascinating as the answer itself.

“In order to help people live more meaningful daily lives, it is essential to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” he explains.
Discovering the “why” is an integral part of Dr. Burke’s teaching and research. He has a number of research areas, all of which involve his students.

One such area of research for Dr. Burke is terror management theory, which postulates that we invest in or defend our culture most strongly when thinking about death.

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Dr. Burke became interested in the reasons behind why people reacted to the attacks in the ways that they did—ranging from culture investment (charity) to cultural defense (hate crimes, two wars). Hundreds of studies on terror management theory had been conducted in the past two decades and Dr. Burke decided, with the encouragement of his wife, to do a meta-analysis examining all these studies to get an overall picture of the theory’s evidence base.

“Any one study can tell you what you want—and politicians use this all the time,” he says. “There’s one study that shows the economy is rebounding; there’s another study that shows it isn’t. The real value with meta-analysis is that you can take all the studies and put them together to see what you have.”

Dr. Burke found that people, when thinking about death, tend to defend what is comfortable or familiar to them – their own cultural world view. This may explain why so many terrorists come from countries where poverty, violence and disease are prevalent and where the United States is seen as a threat to the prevailing cultural norms.

“When your world view, whether it’s based on the Koran or the Bible or science, is threatened by people who are different and you’re reminded of your own death,” explains Dr. Burke, “then you’re significantly more likely to defend that world view vehemently, even at the expense of your own physical death as the 9/11 terrorists did.”

So, why would a Democrat make a Republican drink more hot sauce, and vice versa, when the decision-maker is thinking about death? Ask Dr. Burke about terror management theory and he would be happy to explain.