(Psychologically) Escaping Death

Implications for mental and physical health

Posted Apr 02, 2019

Arnaud Wisman, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Kent, proposed the idea of 'using or losing' the self in relation to thinking about death. In short, this is the notion that people can either draw on their own psychological resources (e.g., solidified belief systems, relationships) to cope with thinking about death or, if that is not sustainable, cope with thoughts of death by avoiding self-awareness. The latter is more likely, he theorized, for people with low self-esteem and the former for people with high self-esteem.

This theorizing is an integration of Terror Management Theory, which argues that people cope with death thoughts by maintaining their worldviews and self-esteem, and self-discrepancy theory, which posits that when people do not believe they can meet their goals of who they want to be or feel they should be (when their actual self cannot ever match their ideal self or ought self), they will attempt to cope with the negative thoughts and emotions by avoiding self-awareness.

In a series of studies, this idea was tested in relation to people's reports of how much they are thinking about themselves, their choice to write about themselves or others, and people's consumption of alcohol. The results indicated that people with low self-esteem were less likely to think about themselves, and to write about themselves, after thinking about death versus a variety of other topics (e.g., pain, failure). They also were more likely to drink alcohol at a party. This did not apply to people high in self-esteem.

Other studies consistent with this line of reasoning show that - after a short delay of minutes - people with low self-esteem will have more negative mood when thinking about death. This includes less hope, more anxiety and more sadness.  People with high self-esteem do not experience this. 

Studies also show that these effects are reduced for people with low self-esteem if they are provided with "evidence" of life after death (that is, they read near-death experience accounts where people are convinced that there is an afterlife) or if you provide them with evidence that science is enabling people to live longer.