Inmates on death row facing imminent execution use more positive than negative words in their final statements, according to new research.
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.”
In pictures: Controversial executions
In pictures: Controversial executions
1/5 George Stinney Jr, 14
George Stinney Jr became the youngest person to be executed in the US in the 20th century when he was sent to the electric chair in 1944 during the trial that lasted less than three hours and reportedly bore no evidence and barely any witness testimonies.
2/5 Clayton Lockett, 38
Convicted of the murder and rape of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman in 2000 and sentenced to death. Lockett died of a heart attack after a failed execution by lethal injection in April 2014
3/5 Roy Blankenship, 55
Killed by lethal injection in 2011 after he murdered an elderly woman. Witnesses saw him grimace and jerk as he became the first person put to death in that state with pentobarbital. Medical experts said he “suffered greatly”
4/5 Michael Wilson, 38
Executed by lethal injection in January 2014. Wilson was convicted of murdering co-worker Richard Yost during a robbery at a convenience store in 1995. He is one of three people executed for the crime
5/5 Dennis McGuire, 53
Sentenced to death following the rape and murder of pregnant 22-year-old Joy Stewart in 1989. After spending 25 years on death row fighting the order to end his life, McGuire was executed by lethal injection in January 2014
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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