How the Unrelenting Threat of Death Shapes Our Behavior

Research Redux
Two Old Men Eating Soup, between 1819-1823, Francisco Goya

So people are more proactive when it comes to surviving when they consciously think of death? And, in contrast, when they have unconscious thoughts about their mortality, they become more existential in their thinking and more beholden to their beliefs in their behavior?

When people consciously think about death, they either act proactively to forestall it -- eat healthy water, exercise -- or rationalize why it won't be a problem for a long time - "I take Lipitor," "I'll quit smoking soon" -- or just try to distract themselves by turning on the TV, calling a friend or having a drink. The goal is just to get those thoughts out of consciousness.

When thoughts of death are activated outside of consciousness, it's not that people become more existential in their thinking since they're not thinking about death at all. Rather, they bolster the psychological resources that they have learned to use to cope with the existential problem of death, their worldview and sense of significance. And so when death is close to mind -- after watching an action flick, hearing about a celebrity death, reading about an act of terrorism online, noting a weird spot or new wrinkle, driving past a cemetery -- people become more adamant in their beliefs and get extra-motivated to distance themselves from their physicality and to assert their symbolic value -- their intellect, achievements, and so forth. They increase prejudice and aggression against others who are different. They reject the physical aspects of sex, avoid bodily activities, and use euphemisms for them. They show off their skills, smarts, fitness, and generosity. And indeed research has shown all of these things.

Where is the line between a simple reminder of death and consciously thinking about death? Does one lead to the other or not necessarily?

The conscious -- proactive or evasive -- defenses are only likely to be activated by consciously thinking about your own death. But most reminders of death that we are exposed to at least fleetingly enter consciousness, and that's more than enough to activate our unconscious defenses. We can't be absolutely certain conscious thought of death will always lead to unconscious defense, but the existing evidence suggests that the answer is likely yes. Even if a reminder of death isn't consciously noticed, any way people are led to think of death is likely, sooner or later, to trigger unconscious efforts to bolster one's worldview or self-worth. We have shown, for example, that simply subliminally flashing the word "death" on a computer screen to Americans for 28 milliseconds is enough to amplify negative reactions to an author who criticizes the U.S.

Is there any other way to be terrorized besides by death such that the theory still holds?

Neither the theory nor the research implies that mortality is the only factor that worries people or motivates their behavior. However, our evidence shows that the ways people keep their concerns about mortality at bay play a role in a wide range of aspects of human behavior that seem on the surface to have nothing to do with death.

For example, we've found that the fear of death plays a significant role in many phobias -- not just fears of things that can kill you like germs, spiders, and heights, but also social phobias because they raise concerns about being embarrassed or ridiculed, and so, with self-esteem. In one study, we found that reminders of mortality increase social reticence in socially anxious people. And another study found that when participants expected to have to present an ill-prepared speech to an audience, thoughts of death became more likely to enter consciousness.

What questions remain unanswered?

Many questions remain. How do the conscious ways we think about and react to death affect our unconscious reactions to it? Can extensive conscious contemplation of death or other forms of heightened death awareness make people less reliant on cultural belief systems and a sense of personal significance to manage their fears? Can knowledge of our shared mortality be used to reduce rather than intensify intergroup conflict? How does our need for terror management affect how we humans treat other animals? Can knowledge of TMT facilitate growth and compassion and help people become more in touch with and in control of the choices they make in their lives?

How do you feel about these lingering issues?

Sometimes I think they're exciting to consider and important to try to answer. Other times, they bring death thoughts closer to my consciousness. I quickly defend my enduring significance by noting that science involves a continuous process of discovery and assessment and the best theories continue to generate interesting new questions and issues decades or even centuries later, thus ensuring my symbolic immortality until the field of psychology is completely obliterated along with the rest of the human species, whether by environmental depletion or poisoning, nuclear holocaust, or perhaps like Tyrannosaurus rex, by comet. Come to think of it, only then will there be no more questions.

Any pet peeves or ways in which TMT has been misused or misunderstood?

There is a tendency for researchers to focus in on the nanoparticles that make up the atoms that make up the molecules that make up the bark on the trees rather than on the bark or the trees, no less the forest. I think some researchers focus in so narrowly on a specific finding from one specific study that they don't really think deeply about the theory or the larger context of hundreds of other studies and data from anthropology, archeology, history, and other fields that are all pertinent to what the theory was developed to explain. A lot of people in our field -- and I am sure other sciences as well -- jump into research prematurely and are more concerned with quickly making names for themselves than they are with good scholarship and advancing knowledge. I think there's a theory that could explain this.

Yes, we now know of at least one. On that note, what was the initial reaction to the research and what has been its long-term impact on the field and to you personally?

Immediately after its publication, the work had some impact in the press, but seemed to engender mainly puzzlement or disdain within academic psychology. Most psychological scientists at the time were trained to view people and science narrowly, and to be suspicious of big theories, a vestige of the anti-Freudian stance that began to take hold in academic psychologists in the 1960s. In contrast, we were proposing a big theory of human motivation based on a combination of existential philosophy and, of all things, psychoanalytic theorizing, along with influences from anthropology and sociology.

On top of that, most people in our field were living largely in denial of death. For years at conferences, people looked at us, generally from a safe distance, as "the death guys." We used to console ourselves with "We're big in Europe" since, in the U.S., we didn't get a whole lot of attention until after 9/11. I recall at a conference the month after the attacks, a very prominent social psychologist stopping me briefly and saying "OK, now I know what you're talking about," as if death didn't exist or somehow wasn't a problem until 9/11.

Over time, I like to think TMT has helped open the field up to theorizing about and empirically investigating the roles of the unconscious, motivation, culture, religion, and existential concerns in human behavior. But I am more focused on the impact I hope it has on people in their daily lives and on professionals who may find it useful to promote physical and mental health, and social progress.

Personally, I also hope that the understanding of human beings this research supports -- that we're all vulnerable creatures clinging to fragile beliefs to handle the existential predicament inherent in being human -- has helped me become a better, more compassionate person. It's helped me realize that, no matter how absurd someone else's beliefs seem to me, mine are likely no less absurd. And if such beliefs are helping that person function with equanimity and not leading him to harm others, I should respect them.

Presented by

Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Health

Just In