Terror Management Theory
Nearly everyone fears death. How that fear influences human thinking and behavior is the focus of terror management theory (TMT) research. According to TMT, death anxiety drives people to adopt worldviews that protect their self-esteem, worthiness, and sustainability and allow them to believe that they play an important role in a meaningful world. Some of these views lead to troubling actions.
According to TMT, people need to insulate themselves from their deep fear of living an insignificant life destined to be erased by death. One path to address this fear is to assure themselves that they are part of an important group. This desire to reinforce cultural significance in the face of death often results in displays of prejudice based on the belief that the group with which one identifies is superior to others. In this way, people confirm their self-importance, at least to themselves.
TMT proposes that individuals are motivated to develop close relationships within their own cultural group in order to convince themselves that they will somehow live on—if only symbolically—after their inevitable death. While some of the foundational studies on which TMT is based have failed to replicate, thereby drawing criticism within the field of psychology, the framework continues to resonate for many.
Terror management theory was developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski and expanded in their 2015 book, The Worm at the Core. But the concept is built on the earlier work of anthropologist Ernest Becker, whose 1973 book, The Denial of Death, argued that the majority of human actions are undertaken primarily as a means to ignore or evade death.
Most psychologists consider TMT to be a sort of evolutionary trait. Humans naturally became aware of dangerous threats as a means of preserving their lives and continuing their gene pool. The deep existential anxiety that comes with that knowledge is an unfortunate byproduct of this evolutionary advantage.
The awareness of our mortality, TMT suggests, terrifies us, and forces us to adapt to it in some way. Some individuals avoid thinking about it at all, while others devote their energy to leaving a legacy that could make them “immortal.” This could manifest in a heightened desire to start a family or a stronger belief in an afterlife.
The fear of death may promote insecurity, bias, and even global conflict. But the psychologists who developed TMT also considered the potential upsides—specifically, that when one is aware that their actions are being influenced by the fear of death, they can consciously choose instead to take positive steps toward acting with kindness and finding meaning in their lives.
One reason we grieve for those who pass away is that we empathize with what we imagine was their great suffering and fear as they neared death. But some research suggests that people who believe they are close to death fear it much less than others—and those closest to death appear to express a much more positive attitude toward it than people who are not.
Terror Management Theory suggests that large groups, and even entire societies, may make decisions, or put them off, primarily to gain comfort from avoiding thoughts of death or reassurance that their ideas will live on after they are gone. Research finds that this plays out in some unexpected ways, both beneficial and potentially hazardous.
A core element of Terror Management Theory is that humans will go to great lengths to avoid thinking about their mortality. This may be one reason it’s so difficult for societies to take action on global warming. Individuals may derive some psychological comfort from the denial of climate change, but counterintuitively, doing so could jeopardize the survival of the species.
Not everyone can leave a legacy that keeps their name alive for generations. One way we deal with that, TMT suggests, is by supporting others who represent our values and beliefs and do appear destined for a level of immortality. Celebrity culture, then, may be psychologically adaptive: Famous people, we believe, represent what’s best about us, and helping them live on preserves our own legacy.
Generally, acts of terror fail to achieve their goal of inspiring sufficient fear to cause people to change the way they live, because communities and culture provide individuals emotional support and the promise of safety. On the positive side, culture brings people together and instills resolve. On the darker side, according to TMT, after an act of terror people may cling to their culture’s worldview, that which will presumably live on after their death. Such beliefs, though, can lead to increased insularity, prejudice, and the denigration of outsiders.