Death and Self-Esteem: The Experiment
The subjects were 603 soldiers who first reported on the relevance of automobile driving to their self-esteem. Then half of them were exposed to various reminders of death, and the remaining to a control condition.
Experimenters then tested each group in a driving simulator to assess their risk taking. The measures were either self-reported behavioral intentions of risky driving or driving speed in a car simulator. As expected, the subjects who linked their self-esteem to driving and also received death reminders took more risks in their driving than the control group. But what was happening here?
Another experiment had half of the participants in each condition receiving positive feedback about their quality of driving. Presumably this would bolster their self-esteem. Findings showed that being reminded of death led to more risky driving than the control condition — but only among individuals who perceived driving as relevant to their self-esteem. Even more significant, the introduction of positive feedback elevated self-esteem and eliminated this effect.
And besides self-esteem, mortality salience has one more conscious manifestation: evil.
Evil (Death) & The Hero
If we are conscious of ourselves, we are conscious of all that we will have to “give up” upon our death. There is tremendous anxiety over this and some of it is relieved in symbolic conquests where the real demon is substituted with lesser foes.
Some of this anxiety can be exhorcize in sports or games but more often the demons are symbols of a threat to our personal and collective self-esteem. A threat to a group that reduces our death anxiety is a real threat. I suspect this motivated the cruelty of Roman gladiators, the deadly ball games of the Mayans and the demonization of Hitler and binLaden. We need enemies to reduce our own death anxiety.
Terror Management Theory is really the theory of human culture and our many attempts to be conscious about “something else” — anything but our death. That “something else” is often associated with maintaining our self-esteem. Our self-esteem improves when we receive confirmation from other people that we are meaningful and relevant in life. This counteracts the powerful anxiety that comes from our absolute surety that we will someday die and our “self” will not exist. So organizations, political parties and religions have developed to fill our need. Each offers a means to symbolically avoid non-existence.
St. George’s defeat of the dragon [right] is a strong symbol for the fight against death.
The town had a pond, as large as a lake, where a plague-bearing dragon dwelled that envenomed all the countryside. To appease the dragon, the people of Silene used to feed it two sheep every day, and when the sheep failed, they fed it their children, chosen by lottery. It happened that the lot fell on the king’s daughter, who is in some versions of the story called Sabra. The king, distraught with grief, told the people they could have all his gold and silver and half of his kingdom if his daughter were spared; the people refused. The daughter was sent out to the lake, decked out as a bride, to be fed to the dragon.
Saint George by chance rode past the lake. The princess, trembling, sought to send him away, but George vowed to remain. The dragon reared out of the lake while they were conversing. Saint George fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross, charged it on horseback with his lance and gave it a grievous wound. Then he called to the princess to throw him her girdle, and he put it around the dragon’s neck. When she did so, the dragon followed the girl like a meek beast on a leash.
Live it… or live with it
The lesson of St. George and the Dragon is that we may not be able to defeat death, but we can tame it. We can make the most of our life and forget about the inevitable. Death can become a quiet and subdued creature that follows after us like a pet. Rather than triumph over death, we can learn to coexist with it.
To recapitulate: Consciousness, the concept of “I” and “me”, evolved only recently as a result of our development of language. With consciousness came the discovery that this “self” was mortal and would someday be “no more.”
The most basic motivator of human culture is to create alternate realities in which we can achieve victory over the anxiety of our recognition of eventual death. This death anxiety is repressed in normal consciousness but is fully “awake” subconsciously. It influences our behavior and thoughts, makes us appreciate order and affirm life. It creates our worldview, which we share with other humans. Different worldviews sometimes conflict, resulting in wars and aggression.
When we are consciously reminded of our mortality, we invest more belief in our own worldview. We attempt to have victory over our environment, our bodies and even our instincts as a means to separate ourselves from the natural, animalistic creatures in the hope that we are something more permanent and worthy of immortality. This drive to symbolically overcome death is the primary driver of human culture and influences what we like and dislike, what is beautiful and ugly, and what is good and evil.