Are We Really Terrorized By Thoughts of Death?

Morbid curiosity and challenges to Terror Management Theory.

Posted Mar 01, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Yuri B/Pixabay
Source: Yuri B/Pixabay
  • Terror Management Theory attempts to explain human behavior on the premise that awareness of our mortality causes paralyzing terror. 
  • However, morbid curiosity may show that we generally do not experience such terror at the thought of death.
  • Also, the future of Terror Management Theory looks bleak, as researchers are unable to replicate traditional findings.

We know we will eventually die

As far as we know, humans are the only animals capable of understanding their own mortality. We know we will die one day, and we understand what this means. Interestingly, being aware of our mortality could influence how we behave.

One influential theory about how awareness of death influences behavior is Terror Management Theory. According to this theory, certain cultural and psychological adaptations exist to alleviate the inevitable terror that arises due to awareness of our own mortality. For example, Terror Management Theory argues that humans need self-esteem to help buffer the anxiety that stems from the awareness that we will one day perish.1

Another premise of the theory is that people find solace from this anxiety in the knowledge that they belong to a community and the feeling of security that arises from this. Along these lines, Terror Management Theory predicts that people will defend their worldview and uphold their cultural values when faced with thoughts of their own death. 

Curiosity and the terror of death

Terror Management Theory has amassed hundreds of publications over the past three decades. Many of these studies looked at important moderators of the self-esteem and worldview defense findings. However, one potential moderator is curiously absent from the literature. In my search of the literature, I couldn't find many studies on how curiosity relates to mortality salience responses. 

One study on curiosity was mentioned in a recent Terror Management Theory review paper, however, the paper that was mentioned remains unpublished and cannot be accessed online. According to the review, the results of the unpublished paper show that a substantial minority of participants report feelings of acceptance or curiosity when reminded of death. What’s more, these responses are associated with lower levels of worldview defense. Follow-up experiments (which are also unpublished) apparently showed that encouraging participants to think about death with acceptance or curiosity eliminated the effects of mortality salience on worldview defense.2

One study published by Todd Kashdan and his colleagues found that participants high in trait curiosity did not respond defensively to the classic mortality salience cues.3 This is in line with another recent study that found that some individuals reported increased curiosity in responses to mortality salience.4 Still, out of hundreds of Terror Management Theory publications, only a couple of published studies looked at curiosity. 

Is morbid curiosity important here?

How do we reconcile the supposed fact that humans are terrified by reminders of death with the observation that many people appear to show curiosity in response to reminders of death? I’ve tried to see how morbid curiosity relates to mortality salience and worldview defense. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to replicate the classic Terror Management Theory finding that mortality salience leads one to defend their worldview. 

I’m not alone in my inability to replicate the classic Terror Management Theory studies. Several published studies have found inconsistencies that are difficult to reconcile with Terror Management Theory.Sometimes studies find an effect of mortality salience on self-esteem and worldview defense, and sometimes they don’t. 

The inability to replicate the theory

Replication is a big issue in psychology. Large-scale efforts at estimating replication have found that less than half of psychological studies are able to be replicated.6 One such effort at assessing replication is the Many Labs project. This project tests influential psychological theories using several labs across the world. One recent Many Labs study tested whether or not original author involvement influenced replication studies.7 To do this, they used the classic Terror Management Theory finding that mortality salience leads to worldview defense. 

Over 2000 participants from 21 labs across the world were involved in this massive study. Half of the labs ran replications of the mortality salience study using input from the original architects of Terror Management Theory while the other half ran “in-house” replications. However, the Many Labs study was unable to test their main hypothesis because they did not find an effect of mortality salience on worldview defense regardless of whether or not the original authors were involved.  

Kevin Phillips/Pixabay
Source: Kevin Phillips/Pixabay

It's a zombie theory that does not hold up to scrutiny

My own assessment of the literature suggests that the future of Terror Management Theory looks bleak. As inabilities to replicate traditional findings continue to be published, the foundations upon which Terror Management Theory are built are beginning to crumble. The predictive power of this theory just isn't holding up to scrutiny.

Terror Management Theory is an ambitious theory that attempts to explain much of human behavior on the simple premise that awareness of our mortality causes paralyzing terror. There isn’t a problem with a simple premise having broad explanatory power – visionaries like Darwin and Newton have shown us the explanatory power of simple ideas. Psychology could also do with more broad and ambitious theories and fewer specific pet theories. 

However, the premise of Terror Management Theory doesn’t seem to have the face validity that its original authors claim. Others have written about logical and theoretical flaws with Terror Management Theory8,9 and several alternative theories have been proposed to explain the findings from Terror Management Theory studies.10 

If reminders of death cause paralyzing terror, it only occurs among some people; for others, it causes mesmerizing curiosity.11 After all, if people experienced paralyzing terror from thoughts of death, it would be difficult to explain popular phenomena such as horror entertainment, true crime, dark tourism, and the many non-WEIRD rituals that feature death. It seems our understanding of the psychology of death is just beginning. 

References

1. Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In Public self and private self (pp. 189-212). Springer, New York, NY.

2. Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Thirty years of terror management theory: From genesis to revelation. In Advances in experimental social psychology(Vol. 52, pp. 1-70). Academic Press.

3. Kashdan, T. B., Afram, A., Brown, K. W., Birnbeck, M., & Drvoshanov, M. (2011). Curiosity enhances the role of mindfulness in reducing defensive responses to existential threat. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(8), 1227-1232.

4. Boyd, P., Morris, K. L., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2017). Open to death: A moderating role of openness to experience in terror management. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 71, 117-127.

5. Martin, L. L., & Van den Bos, K. (2014). Beyond terror: Towards a paradigm shift in the study of threat and culture. European Review of Social Psychology, 25(1), 32-70.

6. Open Science Collaboration. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science, 349(6251).

7. Klein, R. A., Cook, C. L., Ebersole, C. R., Vitiello, C., Nosek, B. A., Chartier, C. R., ... & Ratliff, K. (2019). Many Labs 4: Failure to replicate mortality salience effect with and without original author involvement. PsyArXiv.

8. Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Navarrete, C. D. (2006). Reports of my death anxiety have been greatly exaggerated: A critique of terror management theory from an evolutionary perspective. Psychological Inquiry, 17(4), 288-298.

9. Leary, M. R., & Schreindorfer, L. S. (1997). Unresolved issues with terror management theory. Psychological Inquiry, 8(1), 26-29.

10. Holbrook, C., Sousa, P., & Hahn-Holbrook, J. (2011). Unconscious vigilance: Worldview defense without adaptations for terror, coalition, or uncertainty management. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(3), 451.

11. Scrivner, C. (2021). The psychology of morbid curiosity: Development and initial validation of the morbid curiosity scale. PsyArXiv.