Death is an unpleasant thing. Sure, we may make jokes about it and wish it upon our enemies but when we actually begin to contemplate our own mortality we tremble in fear of what our existence, and lack thereof, might mean in the grand scheme of things. This might seem like a common sense—after all it has been a subject of serious contemplation by philosophers, theologians, and thinkers for centuries—but within the last thirty years or so psychologists around the world have been studying the role that the awareness we have of our own mortality has over how behavior and beliefs. In The Worm at the Core, psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski discuss the implications of a large body of research on what they have called “terror management” theory.
Terror management theory is largely derived from the 1973 book, The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker but addresses a problem that has vexed humankind for as long as anyone can recall. According to terror management theory, we rely on culturally relevant belief systems to buffer ourselves against existential anxiety. Our psychological defense can be both conscious and non-conscious but tend to be largely the latter. In addition, our reactions to death threat can varying in meaningful ways depending on whether or not death related thoughts are fully conscious or not.
When we consciously think about death we use proximal defenses. We use proximal defenses to remove conscious thoughts about our mortality from our minds. Once our awareness becomes non-conscious, we distal defenses. These defenses are only indirectly related to our mortality and lean instead towards fulfilling symbolic immorality. This is where our beliefs come into play. Ideals such as beauty, wealth, status, and good health can serve as buffers against existential anxiety. When participants are primed with a mortality reminder, their interest in these ideals increase compared to those in the neutral conditions.
However, for these ideals to have an impact, they must also be relevant to the individual. When people respond immediately to conscious death threats, they interests can radically change but participants are made to wait they tend to revert to which ever beliefs they held before. Awareness of death can make people express an increased desire to exercise but only those for whom exercise is meaningful part of their beliefs will actually increase the time they spend exercising.
Culture provides us with the defenses we use to buffer against existential anxiety but this does not mean that life is meaningless. Rather, it means just the opposite—that life is infinitely meaningful. However, the range of humanly relevant meaning is possibly quite limited. The beliefs we choose, whether consciously or not, are also hugely consequential. Our beliefs have the power to change the world and can quite literally be a life and death matter.
Prejudice is a type of culturally relevant belief, one that aggrandizes one group at the expense of others, and has been for a long time. In one experiments, researchers examined participants attitudes towards racial stereotypes. They found that those who were exposed to the death primer were more likely to favor people who fulfilled racial stereotypes, while those were were exposed to the neutral primer favored those who did not conform to racial stereotypes. In normal circumstances people tend to prefer those who do not fit racial stereotypes but when they are fearful of their own mortality they favor these stereotypes because they confirm a worldview that places them in a position of greater significance and value.
Terror management theory may seem rather grim but we are not mere puppets. In the concluding chapter, the authors point to potential solutions that may ameliorate the destructive potential our of defense mechanism. Accepting the finality of human life and becoming more aware of how the fear of death motivates us are necessary and vital components of our future survival and happiness.
The Worm at the Core is an incredibly insightful and well-written book. It sheds a scientific light on a problem that has plagued human consciousness for thousands of years. The experiments they discuss are wide ranging and touch upon many important social problems, such as judicial bias and prejudice. It well worth reading, not only those studying psychology or philosophy, but for anyone with an inquiring mind.