Penetrating the Circle of Death: Why People are Dying (and Killing) Not to Die

Cultures offer death transcendence in two general forms. They offer literal immortality to those of value through the concept of the eternal soul and heaven. But they also promise symbolic immortality through identification with the ongoing culture and lasting symbols, offspring, and culturally valued achievements. The more one meets internalized cultural standards for being valued, the greater one’s self-esteem and the more qualified one feels for receiving symbolic immortality. After all, if you have a reputation as a wonderful and unique personality, or your writings are deemed good enough to publish or your athletic feats good enough to televise, then even if you pass away tomorrow, you can take comfort in the knowledge that some aspect of yourself, a legacy, will continue beyond your death. Thus humans throughout time – up to today – have been driven by needs for belief in a meaningfulcultural worldview and self-esteem, in order to gain a sense of permanence counteracting the knowledge of potential annihilation. According to TMT, then, humans function relatively securely as long as they sustain faith in such a worldview and in their value within the context of that worldview.

TMT has implications for a wide array of topics, ranging from human sexuality to robotics (Greenberg, Solomon, & Arndt, 2007), but the theory makes two points particularly pertinent to the human propensity for violence. First, because psychological security from the fear of death depends on faith in one’s own culturally derived worldview, the very existence of religious faiths, ideologies, or nations that promote alternative worldviews calls into question the validity of one’s own worldview and thereby arouses anxiety. To minimize these threats to psychological security, people are prone to champion their own worldview and respond to different others with hostility and aggression, resulting in prejudice and intergroup aggression.

Second, psychological security is predicated not just on faith in one’s worldview, but also on the self-esteem afforded by living up to the standards of value of that worldview. Therefore, if the worldview prescribes actions dangerous to self or others in order to feel of value, concerns with mortality will fuel actions that bring death to the fore. The empirical literature guided by TMT amply demonstrates the ways in which concerns about mortality can contribute to risky and destructive actions.

The evidence for terror management: Effects of mortality salience on in-group bias, out-group aggression, and politics

To understand the wealth of empirical research that has supported TMT over the past two decades (recently summarized inGreenberg, Solomon, & Arndt, 2007), one must first grasp the  mortality salience (MS) hypothesis, one of the core hypotheses derived from the theory. Simply put, the MS hypothesis holds that, if much of people’s activity and thinking is oriented toward sustaining cultural frameworks and self-images that provide security against the thought of death, then reminding individuals of their mortality should activate bolstering of those security-providing beliefs. If our sense of self-esteem and our faith in elements of our cultural worldview that give our lives meaning serve as cognitive anxiety buffers, constantly sheltering us from death fear, then exposing participants to death reminders should activate these psychological defenses. Researchers who run MS lab experiments first expose participants to relatively innocuous reminders of their mortality – as simple as asking them the first sentence that comes to mind when they think about their own death, as subtle as the word "death" flashed on a computer screen so quickly it isn’t consciously noticed – and then give them the opportunity to bolster either their self-esteem, or faith in their religious group, nation, or political party (known as  worldview defense). The participants aren’t even aware of the cognitive process occurring, but MS causes them to latch onto these security-providing concepts.

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