How the Unrelenting Threat of Death Shapes Our Behavior

By Hans Villarica
May 4 2012

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

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.”