How the Unrelenting Threat of Death Shapes Our Behavior

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To investigate the effect of mortality awareness, researchers behind the influential "terror management theory" first experimented with judges and prostitutes.

Research Redux
The Garden of Death, 1896, Hugo Simberg

Studies on how we cope with the inevitability of death, or terror management, have a fundamental flaw -- they lack a control group. It's impossible to test if or how a person changes their beliefs or behavior when reminded of their mortality, because our awareness of this human condition never ceases. Our brain's superfrontal gyrus sees to this neurologically, while culture and our physicality highlight it further with books like the Bible and with every new wrinkle.

To examine death despite this conundrum, psychologists at the University of Kansas in 1989 did what academics do best: they rationalized the problem away. Just as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre affirmed man's existence through his own Cartesian tautology ("I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am"), Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski simply assumed that there is a universal, baseline cognizance of the threat of death, and then investigated the instances when death was on people's minds more than usual.

Decades later, hundreds of published academic papers have shown that worrying about death affects everything from our prejudices and voting patterns to how likely we are to exercise or use sunscreen. More broadly, they've proven Greenberg and company's original terror management theory right all along: that people deal with death by upholding worldviews that are larger and longer-lasting than themselves, and opposing anyone or anything that violates these "cultural anxiety-buffers."

In the Q&A below, Greenberg reflects on his team's pioneering work in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (PDF). He elucidates the intricacies of their theory, recalls how prostitutes and judges proved invaluable in their first few experiments, and shares the curious way their research, which easily became "big in Europe," finally caught on in the U.S.

What was the original intent of your research?

As social psychology graduate students at the University of Kansas back in 1980, Sheldon, Tom, and I felt that our field had become narrowly focused on questions far removed from the whys and hows of everyday life. We didn't buy the prevailing view in psychology at the time that people are essentially information processors guided by cognitive schemas and heuristics because we were raised by working class families surrounded by joy and anger, sibling love and rivalry, passion and sarcasm. The people we knew were driven by ethnic, regional, and occupational pride and conflict; and weren't dispassionate androids. So one broad intent of our research was to encourage the field to think outside the lab and consider the basic motivations that guide people's actions out in the real world.

A more specific intent was to develop a way to test terror management theory, or TMT. The theory is a formal elaboration of ideas that had been floating around since at least the time of the ancient historian Thucydides and that were first introduced in psychology by Otto Rank. Basically, the idea goes: the fear of death drives people to maintain faith in their own culture's beliefs and to follow the culture's paths to an enduring significance that will outlast their own physical death, often to the detriment of others who seem to block their pursuit of these goals.

Could you explain the theory further with an example or illustration?

TMT began with two simple observations about human beings. First, humans share with other mammals many biological systems oriented toward keeping themselves alive. Included among these is a fight-flight-freeze response to imminent threat of death, usually in humans accompanied by the subjective experience of terror. Second, unlike other mammals, adult human brains have highly developed prefrontal lobes that allow them to realize that no matter what, sooner or later, death will come. Thus, part of the human condition is living with a desire to continue to live and an inherent fear of death on the one hand, and, on the other, the knowledge that this desire will inevitably be thwarted and that what is feared will inevitably occur. The theory consequently posits that this existential predicament creates an ever-present potential to experience a terror of no longer existing.

"As children develop cognitively, they begin to understand the threat of death," says Greenberg. "Their basis of security shifts from the parents to large cultural concepts, such as deities and ideals."

As this awareness of mortality dawned on our ancestors, they were drawn to belief systems that helped them continue to function with equanimity. These cultural worldviews portrayed the world as a meaningful, purposeful place in which death is not the ultimate end. Until very recently, these worldviews virtually always included the idea of a literal afterlife for some aspect of oneself -- a soul -- but also included modes of transcending death via permanent symbolic marks of the self, such as heroic deeds, great achievements, memorials, and heirs.

These worldviews are typically constructed such that qualifying for these literal and symbolic modes of immortality require being a valued contributor to the culture. Not coincidentally, this mirrors the way children develop and sustain a sense of psychological security. Born helpless and dependent, their first basis of security is parental love. But within the first year or so, this protective love becomes dependent on being good and thus of value in the eyes of the seemingly omnipotent parents. As children develop cognitively, they begin to understand that the threat of death lurks behind their early fears of big dogs, monsters, the dark, and so forth. Their basis of security shifts from the parents to large cultural concepts, such as deities, their nation, and cultural ideals. That is, from being good little boys and girls in the eyes of their parents to being good, valued Christians or atheists, Americans or Germans, artists or scientists. The result of this socialization process is fully enculturated adults who sustain psychological security, despite knowing how vulnerable and mortal they are, by maintaining two psychological constructs: our faith in our worldview and our sense of self-worth.

How did everything come about?

As grad students, we knew from the existing evidence in social psychology that people seemed to protect their self-esteem and are prone to be biased against out-groups, but no one in our field was explaining why. So we started looking outside our field for answers, and we found them in a 1973 book by cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, called The Denial of Death. We found his dazzling interdisciplinary synthesis of ideas terrifying, compelling, and able to answer those 'why' questions; and indeed explain much of what we knew about human behavior, including such matters as the ascent of Hitler in Germany. After reading his other books and the key scholarly work he built upon, we tried to capture the essence of his rich analysis in a simple formulation, which we dubbed terror management theory.

The tricky part in assessing TMT was that it assumes that, while all humans are driven to stay alive, they are at the same time aware that death is inevitable. Hence, all cognitively able humans fear their mortality and must cope with this fear. But since this unconscious fear is a constant, not a variable, how do you test an idea this big, based on a constant universal of the human condition?

As we struggled with this problem, Deb Lyon, a 30-year-old undergrad I was supervising, wanted to study judicial decision-making. She told me that, fortunately, she was dating a municipal court judge who was willing to encourage his colleagues to participate in a study. It struck me that judges uphold the culture's beliefs by punishing those who violate them. If fear of mortality motivates upholding cultural beliefs, then perhaps the more people are thinking about death, the more they will uphold those beliefs by treating an alleged cultural violator more harshly. So I told Deb, "Let's give the judges some personality measures, prompt them about their mortality, and then have them make a judgment of a hypothetical case typical for them" -- in this case, setting bond for an alleged prostitute.

The results exceeded our expectations. Judges reminded of their mortality set an average bond of $455 while judges not so reminded set an average bond of $50. Many subsequent studies have shown that reminders of death arouse negative responses to others who violate or challenge our own worldview, supporting one basic implication of TMT: that our need for terror management plays a substantial role in prejudice and intergroup conflict.

What other questions have been answered since TMT was first introduced?

After hundreds of studies, many questions have indeed been answered. Research guided by TMT has revealed how concerns about mortality influence many types of human beliefs and behavior: bad things like prejudice, intergroup conflict, terrorism, and aggression; largely good things like achievement, risk-taking, art, and creativity; very personal things like sex and other bodily activities; health-related lifestyle choices, cancer prevention, and mental health problems; matters of practical import like marketing, consumerism, robotics, and environmentalism; and a host of other aspects of life, such as legal decision-making, patriotism, political preferences, romantic relationships, parenting, and religious belief.

A character in one of Philip Roth's novels nicely sets up the fundamental question TMT research addresses: "In every calm and reasonable person there is a hidden second person scared witless about death." TMT asks: how do most of us keep that second person hidden most of the time? Studies revealed that when people consciously think about death, they just want to get it out of their minds, largely by convincing themselves, as my colleague Steve Chaplin puts it, "Not me, not now." They say, "I'm young, I'm healthy, I'm going to start eating right." But when death is on the fringes of consciousness, threatening to pop up, we keep it at bay by leaning on the defenses we learned as children. We try to comfort ourselves: "I'm good, so I'm protected; I'm special, I'm part of something great; I last, I'm above the fray, an eternal soul, not a mere material thing."

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 years at conferences, people looked at us, generally from a safe distance, as 'the death guys,' says Greenberg. "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."

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.

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

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