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Death threat
One long and fruitful line of research deriving from personal construct theory concerns the phenomenon of death threat, the degree to which people sense awareness of imminent, comprehensive change in their core role structure when asked to reflect on their own mortality. The original, repertory grid -based measure of this concept, the Threat Index (or TI) (Krieger, Epting, & Leitner, 1974), required eliciting a sample of death-relevant constructs (e.g., painful vs. painless, meaningful vs. meaningless) from the respondent through a triadic comparison of situations involving death (e.g., "a tornado kills three children in an elementary school", "your grandmother dies in her sleep"). The person was then asked to rate the elements self, preferred self, and (personal) death on these constructs, with the number of splits in which both self-elements were aligned with one construct pole, and death with its contrast, serving as the index of the subjective threat that would be entailed in construing the death of self as a personal reality.  After the TI was streamlined into a standardized measure using frequently occurring constructs, it validity and reliability were documented in dozens of studies, making it the best established measure in the entire literature on death attitudes (Neimeyer, 1994).

The availability of a solid measure of death threat made possible numerous applications to such topics as the death threat experienced by suicide intervention workers (Neimeyer & Dingemans, 1980), the link between death anxiety and the completion of one’s existential goals (Neimeyer & Chapman, 1980), and the personal anxieties about death experienced by gay and bisexual men living in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic (Bivens, Neimeyer, Kirchberg, & Moore, 1994). Later research has expanded this focus to include the threat and discomfort of counselors working with clients presenting with death-related (e.g., grief, AIDS) or non-death-related problems (e.g., marital discord, physical handicap) (Kirchberg, Neimeyer, & James, 1998). As hypothesized, counselors reported greater discomfort in responding to the death than non-death situations, a response that proved to be mediated by the personal death fears of the counselor. Moreover, the least empathic responses were provided by counselors who construed death in fatalistic terms on the Threat Index, suggesting that working with death and loss can prove especially challenging for those counselors whose personal constructions of death leave them vulnerable to such work. 
  • Bivens, A. J., Neimeyer, R. A., Kirchberg, T. M., & Moore, M. K. (1994). Death concern and religious belief among gays and bisexuals of variable proximity to AIDS. Omega, 30, 105-120.
  • Kirchberg, T. M., Neimeyer, R. A., & James, R. K. (1998). Beginning counselors' death concerns and empathic responses to client situations involving death and grief. Death Studies, 22, 99-120.
  • Krieger, S. R., Epting, F. R., & Leitner, L. M. (1974). Personal constructs, threat, and attitudes toward death. Omega, 5, 299-310.
  • Neimeyer, R. A. (1994b). The Threat Index and related methods. In R. A. Neimeyer (Ed.), Death anxiety handbook (pp. 61-101). New York: Taylor & Francis.
  • Neimeyer, R. A., & Chapman, K. M. (1980). Self/ideal discrepancy and fear of death:  the test of an existential hypothesis. Omega, 11, 233-240.
  • Neimeyer, R. A., & Dingemans, P. (1980). Death orientation in the suicide intervention worker. Omega, 11, 15-23.

Robert A. Neimeyer

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004