Whilst flicking through Facebook looking for what was posted by the news and science organisations I follow, I came across an article titled ‘Doubting death: how our brains shield us from mortal truth‘. The reason this article caught my attention was that it reminded me of a theory I learnt: Terror Management Theory.
I came across Terror Management Theory while doing my undergraduate degree and it immediately struck a chord with me due to my mum. As such, I’ve been fascinated by the theory ever since.
Terror Management Theory also posed some interesting questions: Is our death anxiety the ultimate anxiety that affects everyone? Or is it more philosophical than real-world truth? Let’s explore this together, and then you can tell me what you think about it in the comments section below.
What Is Terror Management Theory?
Terror Management Theory is based on the assumption that humans, like other animals, have an instinctive drive for self-preservation. But what makes us different from other animals is that we are aware that we will eventually die, due to our far more highly developed cognitive abilities. This creates a problem for our innate self-preservation drive, which Terror Management Theory was created to try to explain (Greenberg, Simon, Harmon-Jones, Solomon, Pyszczynski, and Lyon, 1995).
In order to combat the fear of our mortality, our minds have found a way of stopping us from living in constant fear of dying (death anxiety). They do this by focusing on the idea we won’t really die, either literally in the form of religion or symbolically through other concepts.
According to Koç and Kafa (2019), humans are the only species we currently know of that are fully aware of their own consciousness and inevitable death. Because of this awareness, we have to create a system to deal with this, and this is what the Terror Management Theory aims to explain. Or, as Hart, Shaver, and Goldenberg (2005) put it, we humans look for security blankets to protect us from our fear of death.
Thus, the things we put in place to protect us from our death anxiety are really coping strategies. But what really matters with these coping strategies is how healthy they are for us and society.
I know my mum’s turn to religion to manage her depression has caused my mum to be fully addicted to her religious views. To the point that it’s almost all she ever talks about, which has pushed everyone away from her. Her views have isolated her and caused her to effectively be banned from a lot of churches. I often joke that if my mum had been addicted to alcohol or drugs instead of religion, I would have at least been able to get her help to kick the habit.
As it is, my mum’s faith is the most important thing to her, more important than her own son. She told me that if God asked her to kill me, she would. It is always nice to hear from someone who has said that my being born had ruined her life.
The irony is, my mum’s more alone now, due to her religious beliefs. If she’d invested the time she’d spent studying the Bible and talking about her faith into making friends instead, she’d be a happier person.
Symbolic and literal immortality are the two defining concepts of Terror Management Theory, but I’ve stretched that to include a couple of additional concepts.
Living forever. A pretty short description, but how can it be done? In this day and age, people are looking for ways to live forever by uploading themselves into computers, becoming robots, freezing our bodies and being awakened in the future, cloning, etc. But before these concepts were even possible to conceive, we had religion.
Religion has been with us for thousands of years, and each faith has some form of life-after-death concept. Whether it’s going to heaven/hell, reincarnation, passing into a higher plane of existence, etc.
Thus, Terror Management Theory would dictate that these religions and spiritual beliefs exist to protect us from our fear of death (and no longer existing). This might help explain why there are more religious and spiritual people in the world than there are those without faith. Is there a religion where there is no concept of living on after death, in one form or another?
Essentially, this is when we leave our mark on history. For some, this will be becoming a leader of a country, inventing something, writing a book, being famous, etc. We strive to do something that will stop us from considering our lives as being insignificant, and give them meaning that’ll live beyond us after we die.
This can also be achieved by believing you’re a part of something greater than yourself. Which could offer insights into racism, bigotry, nationalism, and the appeal of the far-right.
This one’s fairly self-explanatory. This is basically our need and reason for having children. We pass on our genes and thus live on for as long as our bloodline survives indefinitely.
This one’s a more personal view that I’ve been keen to investigate, should I ever become a researcher. I’ve often wondered if there was a link between addiction and Terror Management Theory, at least for some sufferers.
That’s because some people turn to alcohol and drugs in order to cope with the things that they can’t handle. Which, although it’s an unhealthy coping strategy, may well stop them from taking their own lives. Thus, could addiction, in these cases, function as a form of death anxiety coping strategy?
Also, if someone suffering from addiction has lost hope and meaning in their lives, then maybe their substance abuse is what is giving them a fake meaning in which to keep them alive. Thus, would it help those suffering from addiction to find a real and healthy meaning that is personal to them, to improve their recovery from addiction?
Terror Management Theory, Self-Esteem, And Worldviews
Another important aspect of Terror Management Theory is self-esteem and the cultural worldview. These two concepts, according to Hart, Shaver, and Goldenberg (2005), are interlinked. They define the cultural worldview as being the culture you belong to, or rather, the group you feel you belong to. For example, a religious worldview would give you the belief that you’ll literally live forever, one way or another. Self-esteem fits into this by offering you a feeling of inclusion through conforming to your cultures, or groups, worldview.
Basically, our worldview is the overarching concept that encompasses the method by which we hope to live forever: literal or symbolic immortality (Volini, 2017).
Thus, in order for us to better protect ourselves from our fear of death, we will seek to further improve our cultural worldview credentials so we can boost our self-esteem. This might mean that the lower our self-esteem is, the more extreme we might behave in order to subscribe to our worldview.
If this is true, then it would offer insights into how some people, when they feel like they’ve hit rock bottom, can find a way of living that they suddenly become obsessed with. It might also offer insights into how vulnerable people can be manipulated to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have done.
However, due to the importance of the worldview in protecting ourselves from our fear of dying, challenges to our worldview can cause problems. The more our self-esteem is rooted in our worldview, the worse the reaction to this challenge can be. This is because they will feel the need to protect their worldview in order to maintain their self-esteem.
Support for this comes from Volini (2017), who said that we earn self-esteem by meeting the cultural or social groups we subscribe to’s worldview norms and values. This is because our worldviews ground our values and standards into something meaningful, on which we can base our self-esteem and self-worth (Greenberg, Vail, and Pyszczynski, 2014).
Have you ever noticed that a calm debate on a topic can swiftly turn to a member of the debate lashing out and becoming personal, rather than discussing the topic at hand? That could be because their worldview has become too threatened, and thus, in order to protect it, they’ve shut down the discussion and gone after the person instead.
This also means that people that support their worldview will be seen more favourably by that person. Not only that, but in order to avoid exposure to information that challenges their worldview, they will seek others that will share their worldview, and thus, improve their self-esteem through that acknowledgement. However, this can result in the echo-chamber effect.
Another way of looking at the Terror Management Theory is that we need to have meaning in our lives. If we have meaning, then our fear of dying is lessened, because having meaning will work as a buffer.
Thus, the worldview we have can also grant us meaning, and this meaning in life will protect us when confronted with the awareness of our own death (Koç and Kafa, 2019). This is supported by Routledge and Juhl (2010), who found that those who lacked perceptions of meaning in their lives had increases in death anxiety when exposed to something that reminded them of their mortality.
Creating meaning and purpose in our lives will protect us from our death anxiety and help us avoid more extreme outcomes as seen in the current rise of nationalism.
Without meaning and our worldview to function as a buffer to our death anxiety, Terror Management Theory states that we would basically be paralysed with fear.
According to the study stated in the article, the brain shields us from our existential fear of death, by ticking us into thinking it’s only something that happens to other people
Basically, what the study in the article is talking about is the optimism bias. This means our brains help us go about our day in the face of terrorism, accidents, and other such events, by using a handy trick of overestimating positive events happening to us and downplaying the likelihood of negative events happening.
The study the article is discussing also goes on to say that our brains shielding us from thinking about our possible future demise could be critical for us living in the here and now.
How the article and Terror Management Theory compare
This is where the study differs from the Terror Management Theory. The researcher in the study suggests that people consume, work hard, and keep themselves busy in order to avoid thinking about dying in the future. Whereas the Terror Management Theory states that we don’t distract ourselves to avoid worrying about our own death. Instead, we find our own way to effectively think we’ll never die.
How the optimism bias and Terror Management Theory compare
The optimism bias seems to rely on us thinking that we are unlikely to die, and any events that could lead to death are events that happen to other people. I know I’ve had these thoughts pass through my mind from time to time when stuff like a terrorist event occurs.
Whereas, Terror Management Theory is about mentally putting things in place that will remove or reduce the fear and anxiety about death, such as being religious.
Thus, you could argue that Terror Management Theory and optimism bias go hand in glove. Both work together to allow us to function without living with the fear of dying.
Terror Management Theory And Depression
I would argue that if you have low self-esteem, then you’re at an increased risk of having depression. I know with my depression I lack a meaning to do anything, and I need one in order to function. So I would suggest that one possible way to help someone with depression, from a Terror Management Theory perspective, would be to help that person find meaning. To also connect to a healthy worldview so they can improve their self-esteem, and as a by-product, improve their depression and mental health as well.
What are your thoughts on how the Terror Management Theory could be applied to mental health?
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share your thoughts on Terror Management Theory and death anxiety in the comments section below as well. If you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Greenberg, J., Simon, L., Harmon-Jones, E., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1995). Testing alternative explanations for mortality salience effects: terror management, value accessibility, or worrisome thoughts? European Journal of Social Psychology, 25(4), 417–433. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2420250406.
Greenberg, J., Vail, K., & Pyszczynski, T. (2014). Terror management theory and research: How the desire for death transcendence drives our strivings for meaning and significance. In Advances in motivation science (Vol. 1, pp. 85-134). Elsevier. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.adms.2014.08.003 and https://sciences.csuohio.edu/sites/csuohio.edu.sciences/files/09-I-07%20Greenberg%20Vail%20Pyszczynski%202015%20TMT%20advances%20review%20CHAPTER.pdf.
Hart, J., Shaver, P. R., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2005). Attachment, Self-Esteem, Worldviews, and Terror Management: Evidence for a Tripartite Security System. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(6), 999-1013. Retrieved https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1249.
Koç, V., & Kafa, G. (2019). The roles of self-esteem and attachment within the framework of terror management theory. Psikiyatride Güncel Yaklaşımlar, 11(1), 129–139. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.18863/pgy.419330 and https://dergipark.org.tr/en/download/article-file/612297.
Routledge, C. & Juhl, J. (2010). When death thoughts lead to death fears: Mortality salience increases death anxiety for individuals who lack meaning in life. Cognition and Emotion, 24(5), 848-854. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930902847144 and https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247496706_When_Death_Thoughts_Lead_to_Death_Fears_Mortality_Salience_Increases_Death_Anxiety_for_Individuals_Who_Lack_Meaning_in_Life.
Volini, L. A. (2017). An Introduction to Global Family Therapy: Examining the Empirical Evidence of Terror Management Theory Within the Family and Social System. American Journal of Family Therapy, 45(2), 79–94. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/01926187.2016.1275067.