How Facing Nuclear Destruction Could Make Us Wiser.

According to Terror Management Theory, it depends how we deal with it.

Posted Aug 11, 2017

To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.

It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.

                                                      Ernest Becker                              

A Suicidal Species?

Thanks to ourselves for creating the circumstances again within which we feel threatened with collective annihilation. Since the advent of the nuclear age, we have held a gun pointed at our own heads, like a child playing with a loaded gun who thinks it is a toy... or a child who has been taught about gun safety, and thinks the chamber is empty, but while playing accidentally kills another person. Evolution has endowed us with the intellect but not the wisdom to make use of the forces of nature, and as a result we may be the first earthly species to prune off our own branch of the evolutionary tree. I'm sad to say this is on my mind more than I'd like. There's other things I'd rather be doing... and I'm resentful.

The current nuclear crisis is a case-in-point. There is an escalating war of words with two apparent bullies facing off with each other on the playground, yet the playground — now smaller than ever before — is the whole planet. We can't blame these leaders, because they are like us, by and large. The fantasy that political leaders are on average any better than the average Joe or Jane is just that: wishful thinking. The wish that those in power will make good decisions for the betterment of all is questionable at best, and undermined by nationalism, tribal feuding, difference in values and betrayal of the public trust in pursuit of special- and self-interest.

In spite of systemic corruption and betrayal, I think it is un-useful to see oneself as a victim of forces beyond our control. Likewise, heroic conceptions of fixing the world, whether from collective action or individual heroism, suggest a solution to the problem which may simply be a repetition of the same kind of misguided thinking which lead us to this point in the first place.

A Brush With Death

We commonly understand that when an individual (and those close to them) faces a life-threatening illness, or when something horrific happens, they will inevitably change as a result of grappling with adversity and the existential threat.

Anecdotally, people report being grateful for near-death experiences because they force us to re-evaluate our priorities and make major changes in how we are living and how we are spending our time, and the romantic ideal is that we will decide to live more fully and authentically, making the most of our time left on earth. The adage "Live each day as if it were your last," is a call to shake off the yoke of self-deception which leads to complacency, wasted time and ultimately regret. And yet, in the absence of an individual crisis, few of us seem to take these words to heart, and "live lives of quiet desperation," succumbing to the many reasons to put things off for another day, nervously — even, perversely, hopefully — waiting for something to happen which will force us to change. Perhaps this is one reason people engage in massive self-neglect, in order to unconsciously precipitate a life-changing event. Are we capable of playing chicken with our lives?

Naturally, the romantic ideal of how people deal with individual crisis is a best-case scenario, and like a Hollywood movie, isn't necessarily that way things really go. Life-threatening illnesses can ruin people financially, and leave them with emotional and physical problems which are less than heroically actualizing, can tear families and marriages apart, and can lead to a sense of despair and defeat from which one may not recover.

According to research on post-traumatic growth following life-threatening physical illness (Hefferon et al., 2009), there are four main themes for possible post-traumatic growth — "reappraisal of life and priorities"; "trauma equals development of the self"; "existential re-evaluation"; and "a new awareness of the body." However, they did not report data on what percent of people in the studies reviewed report having a positive transformative experience. 

In a comprehensive review of the literature on meaning-making following stressful life events (Park, 2010), we see that people attempt to make meaning out differently depending on the event. Some things are easier to try to make meaning from than others. The death of an infant to SIDS, for instance, may be hard to find meaning in than surviving an illness or raising a child with disabilities. An important question is how often are people able to find meaning out of distress? The data is scant, and variable. One study of breast cancer survivors (Cordova et al., 2001) found that approximately 50% reported experiencing significant post traumatic growth compared to healthy controls, reporting positive changes in life outlook, relationship with children, ability to express oneself, and better relationship with spouse or partner.

For some, seeking and constructing meaning can be useful for adaptation and growth; for others, trying to make meaning could even make things worse, especially perhaps when it fails. Pushing someone to make meaning could backfire, doing more harm than good. Meaning-making and post-traumatic growth do happen for some percentage of people, but for others, it doesn't happen and may not be the right way to go.

So, for individuals and those closest to them, facing a serious existential threat or other distressing experience may lead to efforts to make meaning and as well encourage, perhaps necessitate, post traumatic growth. To varying degrees, such developmental efforts may be useful and effective, but in other cases may lead to problems such as depression or a loss of purpose, when we are unable to create meaning, or fail to meet expectations to transcend adversity and come out stronger on the other side. Because being able to resiliently managed life's challenges and grow from them is a strong cultural prescription, anyone unable do so may feel even worse.

Collective Terror

Connecting this to the collective level requires a conceptual leap, but isn't speculative as social psychology research has looked at how we cope with mortality (TMT), and how this affects our attitudes and decision-making. While we progress as a species overall, we are increasingly confronted with global existential threats of our own creation. Terror management theory hypothesizes that "investment in cultural worldviews and self-esteem serves to buffer the potential for death anxiety" (Burke, Martens & Faucher, 2010). As a result, the significance and immediacy of death — called mortality salience — will lead to worldview and self-esteem changes in defense against death anxiety.

"The theory proposes that a potential for anxiety results from the juxtaposition of death awareness—presumably a uniquely human capacity made possible by cognitive abilities such as self-awareness and abstract thought—and the instinct for self-preservation, which is common to all animals. To defend against this potential death anxiety, people must believe that some valued aspect of themselves will continue, either literally or symbolically, after cessation of their biological body. Literal immortality takes the form of an afterlife (e.g., heaven), whereas symbolic
immortality takes the form of extensions of the self (e.g., children, achievements) continuing to exist after the person’s biological death. Whether literal or symbolic, this cultural anxiety buffer consists of two components: (a) belief in the validity of a cultural worldview and the standards and values associated with that worldview and (b) belief that one is meeting or exceeding those standards and
values, that is, self-esteem." (Burke, Martens & Faucher, 2010)

(Greenberg, Solomon & Pyszczynski, 1997)
Terror Management Theory
Source: (Greenberg, Solomon & Pyszczynski, 1997)

Does terror management theory hold up to empirical research, and does mortality salience motivate people to adapt? According to social psychology research spanning many cultural groups, they do account for a lot of our behavior and attitudes when faced with existential threat.

In a large meta-review of the literature, for example, researchers found that in hundreds of articles measuring mortality salience, 80 percent of them found a significant effect size (Burke, Martens & Faucher, 2010). Unfortunately, defenses against mortality aren't typically healthy or adaptive — for example, leading to increased conflict between groups including defensive aggression and intolerance, increasing prejudice, cultivating beliefs in "symbolic immortality" which may increase willingness to take ill-advised risks (unnecessary war) and make needless sacrifices (e.g. from misguided feelings of heroism), avoidant coping when dealing with important problems (e.g. global warming), increased distracting behaviors such as increased consumerism and greed. People may fail to engage reflectively with annihilation anxiety, and instead defensively channel those feelings and suppressed thoughts into destructive behaviors, individually and collectively.

The Good News

The good news is that there are ways to pause and ponder when faced with annihilation anxiety which can leverage mortality salience which may lead to better strategies for coping, including facilitating charitable work, conflict resolution and other forms of altruistic behavior, and in general fostering a constructive sense of community and cohesion rather than destructive fragmentation and isolation in the face of mortality.

The current nuclear war of words between North Korea and the United States, and more particularly between Kim Jong Un and Trump, certainly requires terror management for many of us, for whom the stakes are high. Every day the news is full of language which makes mortality more salient multiply daily — Trump's "fire and fury like the world has never seen," that the U.S. military is "locked and loaded," plans to strike around the U.S. territory of Guam, claims that North Korean ICBMs could reach the American mainland, counter-claims that this is not the case, reports that North Korean may have miniaturized nuclear warheads which could fit on those ICBMs and have nuclear strike capability as soon as 2018. It's potentially terrifying, but potentially rhetorical and strategic. Regardless, thermonuclear war has become an omnipresent concern, part of our daily vernacular, in a way it has not been since the Cold War and the Bay of Pigs. Hard to know what to make of it, as this exchange from a popular social media platform illustrates:

 Grant H. Brenner
Source: Source: Grant H. Brenner

It doesn't help that Trump has been referencing using nuclear weapons for years, including more recently on the campaign trail. It's not clear, again, whether this is strategic posturing and part of a grand scheme, a distraction to draw attention from other issues and/or the comments of a man who appears to have a cavalier attitude about using nuclear weapons on fellow human beings, potentially placing the whole planet on the chopping block. It is not clear that U.S. missile defense systems would be capable of destroying incoming warheads, heightening anxiety. Whether we trust our leaders to be good shepherds is a key part of the equation, at least regarding Trump, depending on how one sees it he is either a savvy negotiator who is just what the U.S. needed, or a is indifferent to the fate of billions and will lead us all to our doom. How to make sense of the mixed messages coming from different people in his administration and other governmental agencies is a thorny question, but one thing is clear: the lack of cohesive messaging leads to uncertainly, mistrust and confusion.

Some threats are less salient than others, but at least as deadly. Though nuclear war strikes terror into our hearts, we face great risks from climate change, disease, poverty, violence, drugs, social ills, mass extinction (the "sixth wave") and a variety of health-related issues. As the earth's population has increased and the global economy has grown more interdependent, and social media and information technology have drawn us ever closer, mortality salience has also increased. We are undeniably in it together, as we have always been, but arguably we are more likely to pull each other down - on a collective level - if we fall. It is harder and harder to maintain a nationalistic illusion of being separate, though to the extent that holding such an illusion decreases the perception of threat, terror management theory tells us that a sense of protected isolation is really a maladaptive defense against annihilation anxiety, one ultimately more likely to lead to destruction than to actually protect us. 

Likewise, when facing the immediate threat of nuclear war, illusions of and belief in literal as well as symbolic immortality can drive us to utter destruction. Their use to alleviate death anxiety, to shift worldview, and to bolster self-esteem goes terribly wrong when it comes to securing collective safety and well-being. Belief in an afterlife can mollify fears of death by providing an out — for the righteous — a belief that many major religions teach but which appear to serve essentially group-specific and nationalistic interests.

On the other hand, the heroic ideal of sacrifice for one's nation, way of life, values, and so on, can be used to justify needless loss of life, and to motivate individuals to make the ultimate sacrifice, becoming immortal heroes of whatever group they represent. It isn't always clear if the noble sacrifice really accomplished the desired goals or was really justified, and questioning such sacrifices is dangerous and potentially disrespectful. Yet, if one puts aside one's own allegiances for a moment and takes a reflective step back, we can see that the use of symbolic and literal visions of immortality are a constant across all groups which use them to relieve death anxiety and motivate destructive action. Right now, I'm arguing that we're seeing the maladaptive mirror-image use of it between Donald Trump's U.S.A. and Kim Jong Un's North Korea, and that a lot of us are unwilling along for this ride.

Could Sanity Prevail?

If sanity were to prevail and trust were established (big "ifs"), we would deescalate the rhetoric and stop the threats, and rather than absurdly and paradoxically threaten to annihilate one another as a way to ensure safety and survival, we would promise to talk through issues without acting on aggression. In fact, the "diplomatic" solution is still "on the table" (along with being "locked and loaded" for military action), but the idea of speaking with one's sworn mortal enemy is held ambivalently. Some would sit down at the table and take it from there, while others would consider anyone willing to talk a traitor and deserving of immediate execution.

It's impossible to have a sane compromise when there are seemingly irreconcilable differences coming from internal and external fragmentation. Unfortunately, it appears that powerful threats often are involved in conflict management, though they do not lead to long-term resolution, but rather maintain our global system in chronically unstable condition, relying on pendulum swings back and forth between active and hidden threat to keep things moving forward. Having argued elsewhere that we are living in "The Age of Dissociation", I think it would benefit us to slow down and reflect together in an unprecedented way, because I believe that the fate of our species actually hangs in the balance.

Maybe not this time, but next time, or the time after that... We're playing Russian roulette with ourselves. As with individuals facing death, our species ought to grow and make meaning, but should we and will we?  Our strong tendency to rationalize and dismiss is the greatest threat facing us; in the final analysis, it is a self-generated meta-threat which opens the door for all the other preventable dangers. This is because that meta-threat, that flaw in our evolutionary survival systems which makes us heavily weight short-term gain and survival over long-term success, which makes us avoid constructively dealing with mortality, allows the other threats to become lethal when they otherwise would be put to constructive use, and rendered safer.

Rather than addressing mortality salience non-defensively as a species, and coming together to solve collective problems with wisdom and collaboration, we continue to respond defensively, and pay the price. Hopefully we're learning along the way, and at least revisiting the same psychotic and destructive ways of dealing with our fears of death and inability to master death will lead to some incremental learning process so that we can do things better as our society continues to evolve.

With the current situation, in addition to heading off actual nuclear war (let alone conventional war), we can actively view it as a simulation from which to learn, as well as a table-top exercise which evokes the same experiences which the use of nuclear weapons would, while falling short of actually detonating them. This is one of the strengths with which evolution has endowed us: We have the capacity to imagine various possibilities, to run different scenarios and learn what the outcomes would be, without having to live them out. Armed with that information, and if we can hold our emotions in check, we can theoretically make better decisions, but we first have to agree to function this way, and for that to happen all the different stakeholder groups would have to understand what the benefit for them individually would be.


Hefferon, K., Grealy, M., Mutrie, N. (2009). Post-traumatic growth and life threatening physical illness: A systematic review of the qualitative literature British Journal of Health Psychology, 14, 343–378. DOI:10.1348/135910708X332936

Park, C. L. (2010). Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin. Vol. 136, No. 2, 257–301. DOI: 10.1037/a0018301

Cordova, M. J., Cunningham, L. L. C., Carlson, C. R., Andrykowsky, M. A. (2001). Posttraumatic growth following breast cancer: A controlled comparison study. Health Psychology, Vol. 20, No. 3, 176-185. DOI: 10.1037//0278-6133.20.3.176

Greenberg, S., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldview: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 29.

Burke, B. L., Martens, A., & Faucher, E. H. (2010). Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality and Social Psychology Review 14(2), p. 155-195. DOI: 10.1177/1088868309352321