Psychological research on motivation has proposed a lot of strange theories. Perhaps the strangest (to my mind) is Terror Management Theory. I realize that this sounds like a psychological theory that ought to be part of the Department of Homeland Security, but actually, it proposes that people have specific motivational mechanisms that permit them to deal with the fact that they can contemplate their own mortality.
The idea that death is a source of anxiety isn't new. Indeed, Woody Allen would have had much less material without this fact. However, research suggests that there are interesting consequences of being reminded about your own mortality. This evidence was first put forward in a paper by Rosenblatt and colleagues in a 1989 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and research in this area is still growing strong.
The work suggests that when people are reminded of their own mortality, they tend to be more likely to stick to the norms or rules that their society puts forward as part of ideal behavior. So, for example, a recent paper by Matthew Gailliot and his colleagues in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin finds that people reminded that they will die some day are more likely to want to treat ethnic minorities with respect and are more likely to engage in helping behaviors than are people who are not reminded that they will die some day, but only if these societal beliefs are reinforced as part of the experimental procedure.
Anxiety about death also makes people more likely to punish others for violating social norms. In one early study, judges were asked to give sentences for prostitution, which is a crime that has a strong moral component to it. Those judges who were made aware of the possibility of their own death gave harsher sentences to prostitutes than those who did not, suggesting that they were reacting to the moral wrong.
Before going on, it is worth pointing out that studies have developed some ingenious ways of reminding people that they are mortal. Some are really overt, like making people imagine what it would be like to die (as compared to a control condition in which people imagine dental pain). Others are a bit more subtle. One study in the Gailliot paper mentioned earlier either conducted the study on a sidewalk in front of a cemetery or on a sidewalk nearby that was not near a cemetery.
According to Terror Management Theory, people are more likely to stick with the societal rules when they face their own mortality, because society provides the best protection that anyone has against death. Society doesn't prevent death, but acting as a group and affiliating with others does make death less likely at any given moment.
I must admit, I have always been a bit skeptical of Terror Management Theory, though I believe the data that have been collected. That is, I do think that when people are reminded of their own mortality, their level of anxiety goes up, and this results in changes in behavior. Often, behavior changes by making people more helpful and more likely to treat others with respect. Think back, for example, to the days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when there was a general spirit of good will toward others.
The question I have is whether the root cause of this change in behavior is specific to fears about one's own mortality. As one good case for comparison, let's consider Fear of Isolation. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember Fear of Isolation, which is the anxiety someone might feel because of social or physical isolation from others. I talked about Fear of Isolation in the context of cultural differences in thinking, because members of East Asian cultures tend to have a higher Fear of Isolation than members of Western cultures.
Now, Fear of Isolation also tends to make people affiliate with others. There have not been extensive experimental tests comparing Fear of Isolation and Mortality Salience (which is the technical term that has been used for being reminded of your own mortality). However, I suspect that deep down they are quite similar.
If Mortality Salience and Fear of Isolation are indeed similar, then it opens the door to the possibility that there are a number of different social factors that lead to types of anxiety that cause people to become more attuned to social norms. That doesn't change the core fact that social anxiety tends to make people more likely to bond with other people in positive ways. It only means that the cause of this bonding may be more general than Terror Management Theory predicts.