Fear of death: The Terror Management Theory of Everything


Scientific experiments have proven that if you read the following story, you will likely be changed. Your ideas about religion, politics — yes, even your appreciation of art and beauty will be changed… at least temporarily. So if you like the way you feel about life right now, maybe you should skip this article.

I’m going to tell you something that you already know. It’s something obvious. But it’s also so horrific and terrible that it must quickly be forgotten or it could literally drive you insane. Just the reminder of this fact will be enough to change your behavior, your outlook on the world and the look on your face.

“The all encompassing blackness…” —William James 1910

I’m going to describe the cutting-edge of psychological theories, called Terror Management Theory or TMT. It’s been known for a while but has been kept off the radar by the media. And that’s partially because TMT has been used against us (you will see how). It’s a theory that explains human behavior and its most basic psychological motivator.

Are YOU afraid to die?

overTerror Management Theory (TMT) states that all human behavior is motivated by the fear of our own mortality. The fact that you and I will eventually die and be “no more” is a fact known and understood only by humans. Although animals have an avoidance of death, they live in the present. They don’t comprehend their destiny. Only humans have the capacity to project reality in time and imagine the future. Only humans realize the significance of being “no more”.

The theory originated with anthropologist Ernest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction, The Denial of Death, in which Becker argues:

All human action is taken to ignore or avoid the anxiety generated by the inevitability of death.

The terror associated with our unstoppable annihilation creates a subconscious conflict or anxiety called cognitive dissonance. We try to cope with having to accept two contrary ideas. On one hand, we want to become involved with life and think of ourselves as a meaningful part of the world. On the other hand, what does anything matter anyway if we ultimately become “no more” — if all this wonderment of life is temporary?

If this is all temporary, what does it matter?

According to Becker, people spend their entire lives trying to make sense of these conflicting thoughts. We are so afraid of death that we create alternate realities — realities where we won’t “cease to be”. We take comfort in the fact that others share this alternate reality.

Often symbols are used to reinforce our confidence in what psychologists call our worldview.

Reminders of death: Mortality Salience

Psychologists speak of an event which stimulates awareness of our own death as mortality salience. Scientists are often curious how these reminders of death can change our thinking and behavior. They have done many experiments on this.

Mortality salience is usually achieved in experiments by inserting questions about such things as the subjects death plans (last Will & Testament or Life Insurance beneficiaries) or how old his grandfather was when he died. Half of the experimental subjects get the mortality salience and half get benign questions, then they measure the difference. Other times they flash the word DEATH at one twenty-forth of a second on a screen — so fast that the subjects cannot see it even when they’re told it is there. Yet, somehow it works. Their behavior changes.

The basis of human culture!

TMT psychologists view human culture as a belief system constructed to explain and give meaning to life and resist confronting the horror of death. One of the requirements of a successful culture is to substitute the reality of existential death with an achievable afterlife (i.e. belief in heaven or reincarnation). If not literally, then symbolically. Cemetery stones and burial monuments are examples of this. Cultures also reward enduring accomplishments to civilization with material awards, namesakes and inclusions in human history (Like naming a building or street after someone).
3The worldview is the foundation of all human culture. History records that various symbols [above] that have been used to represent different worldviews. Each one offers its unique explanation of how we can coexist with death and attempts to lower our death anxiety.

The following research will show that when your worldview is threatened by another worldview, you will be so anxious that you will fight to defend your own belief system — in fact, this is the basis of religious and political wars. It doesn’t matter what you think consciously either. It’s such a primal reaction that it happens anyway.