Terror Management

How death reminders shape our social behavior.

To Die or Not to Die: That’s the Question.

Death: A New View

Since its inception, psychology has always frustrated people on many fronts. That is, it has provided and keeps on providing theorizings and findings that go counter to what people believe to be true about themselves. One ever-present implicit and explicit psychological assumption has been that people are controlled by powers outside their will. Put another way, they are not free to choose. And of course this is an assumption which none of us may prefer to hear about. Just follow the following:

Psychoanalysis: certainly people have not found psychoanalysis so interesting because it says to them that they are products of a biological beast (i.e., the id), carrying two "worms" (i.e., the sex and aggression instincts) which shape the most fundamental aspects of our personalities. Behaviorism: this perspective has made it clear to people that they are combinations of responses to stimuli. They are a group of "fall leaves" being pushed around by their environments. Cognitive psychology: in this perspective, all people are like computers which receive information from the environment (internal and external), process and work on it, and respond accordingly. Here again, free will might be considered as an illusion. Evolutionary psychology: according to this perspective, human behavior is the product of a wealth of evolutionary assets evolved to help them survive. Millions of years ago, human brain has been programmed to respond the way it does now. Indeed, our brains, not our ‘selves', control us.

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So, it turns out that the entire scope of psychological and behavioral science directly tell us that we or our "autonomous selves" are not in charge of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Additionally, a great philosopher such as Daniel Dennett concludes that: consciousness as the hub of our free will is nothing more than a bunch of brain tricks. However, it should be noted here that there are many psychologists who think that human is the king of his/her behavior and that espousing a "controlled self" is out. Finally and "unfortunately" the scientific findings are heavier for the "we are controlled" side.

Now, there is a social psychological theory which uses the core assumptions of the above-mentioned psychological perspectives and puts forward the same message: we are not free. We are pushed around by our grand terror of dying. The theory is interesting as it claims that we are what we think (consciously or unconsciously) about death. More clearly, our behavior (particularly social behavior) is highly influenced by our thoughts about death and mortality. Naturally this special network of thought is extremely horrible and paralyzing for a species which has found the ability to think about past, present, and future. This theory implicitly tells us that consciousness is a double-edged sword: it helps..., but ... it stings (badly) as well. It helps us to live better. But also it frightens us all the time. The interesting thing that I like to pull out of this that like all the other grand perspectives in psychology, the theory emphasizes the lack of free will we have on these determining thoughts. Oh,... I forgot to mention the title of the theory. It is Terror Management Theory (TMT). As the title indicates, one of our main tasks in the last tens of thousands of years has been to handle this unwanted awareness. That is, warding off the death grand fear from the realm of consciousness. Now the ensuing clear question is: How? In my next posting, I will focus on how we manage this terror based on lots of findings on TMT.

Abdolhossein Abdollahi, Ph.D. is a experimental social psychologist studying terror management theory.

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