The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

How We Cope with Death

A Theory of Terror Management

I'm going to die. So are you. So is that guy over there. So is everyone. On that uplifting note, let me share with you a summary of research on a social-psychological theory that was developed over twenty years ago by psychologists Jeff Greenberg (University of Ariona), Sheldon Solomon (Skidmore College) and Tom Pyszczynski (University of Colorado), called Terror Management Theory.

Terror Management Theory (building mostly from the ideas of Ernest Becker) starts with the idea that humans, unlike other animals, face something that is potentially terrifying: the awareness of our own mortality coupled with the desire to live. To paraphrase TMT co-creator Sheldon Solomon, the awareness that you are destined to wither away to nothingness, and in turn are no more significant than a lizard or a potato, is not particularly uplifting. So how do humans cope with this awareness?

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From a TMT approach, humans cope with mortality by denying their own mortality, and avoiding thinking about it. They repress the terror, basically (for instance, death thoughts promote an avoidance motivation, lead people to exaggerate the probable length of their life and death thoughts lower after people are reminded of death).

But, this approach inevitably fails to a degree. We know we will die, no matter how much we try and avoid thinking about it. So, humans developed cultural symbols of meaning and value that offer a sense of significance and importance, and ultimately, immortality, when people live up to and sustain the standards of these beliefs (hence the human need for self-esteem), as a means of coping with their own death.

This immortality can either be symbolic, such as by breaking records or contributing to worldviews and groups that continue beyond one's death, or literal, as in belief in life after death.

A typical TMT study exposes participants to thoughts of their own mortality or another negative, aversive topic (i.e., physical pain, failure, speech anxiety, meaninglessness, embarassment, uncertainty). Mortality has been manipulated in these studies via open ended questions about death, answering true false questions about death, having participants type the word death as part of an (supposedly) unrelated task, or by having participants complete materials in front of a cemetery.

Research shows, in supporting this theory, for instance, that death reminders cause people to:

1) defend their cultural worldviews more strongly. For instance, to agree less with a person writing negatively about their country, to be more punitive towards moral transgressors (e.g., thieves and prostitutes) and to be more aggressive towards different others, including support for wars (e.g., Landau et al., 2004, Personality and Social psychology Bulletin).

2)  self-enhance and protect self-esteem, such as by agreeing more with positive feedback and taking more credit for success (e.g., Dechesne et al., 2003, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

3) identify more with members of their own group, and even to rate them as more unique from other animals (e.g., Vaes et al., 2010, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

4)  show an increased interest in close relationships, and a heightened desire to have children (lots of studies by Mario Mikulincer).

5) show a preference for clear, well-structured information and physical environments (Landau et al., 2004, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). 

6) psychologically distance from other animals, such as agreeing less with an essay that argues that humans are not unique from other animals, and rating animals as less capable of thoughts and emotions (Goldenberg et al., 2001, Journal of Experimental Psychology).

7) become more religious and believe more in supernatural things, such as life after death (at least implicitly) (Jong et al., 2012, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology).

8) show reduced self-control and self-regulation abilities.


9) Thoughts of death are increased when people's worldviews are challenged (Jeff Schimel's research).

10) Defending one's belief prior to reminders of death lower death thoughts.

How are death thoughts measured? In these studies, they are measured by having people complete word fragments, such as G R A _ _ ,that can either be completed with death related words or other words. In this case, the death word would be G R A V E.


9) Defending any of these things (relationships, beliefs, etc) prior to being reminded of death, or taking away people's anxiety, reduces the effects that mortality thoughts have.

Terror management theory posits that people cope with mortality by creating beliefs and values that promise a sense of immortality. And research supports the premise that these beliefs are (a) defended more when people are reminded of death and (b) protect people from mortality concerns.

So next time you vehemently defend your beliefs, perhaps it would help to be aware that you are likely doing so, in part, as a means of keeping your own basic insecurities about death at bay.

Arguments are not just arguments. They are quests for immortality.


Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.


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