Handbook of cxperimental existential psychology

Existentialism as a philosophy was made popular by the writings of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. However, existentialism as a tradition has also had a great impact on psychology, as evidenced by the creation of existential psychotherapy as well as the present work on experimental psychology. How do we define existentialism in relation to psychology? We can say that the common denominator of existential philosophy as compared to existential psychology is what Jean Paul Sartre described as “Existence precedes essence”; “We mean by that, that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards”. Thus, for example the “meaning of life”, is not something that exists before you are born, it is subjectively invented. Furthermore, meaning can come under scrutiny when confronted with constants that are key to our existence, for example when faced with the inevitability of mortality. In this volume the authors undertake a comprehensive overview of experimental motivational psychology in light of such existential predicaments.

In the introduction chapter the authors state that “An existential perspective focuses not so much on what we know or how we know, but rather that we know,” thus putting emphasis on the aforementioned existential axiom “Existence precedes essence.” Many of the thirty chapters in this volume succeed in providing such a perspective. One of the most challenging chapters provides an overview of Terror Management Theory, which describes how we are motivated to maintain self-esteem by affirming our own cultural worldviews. This provides a defense mechanism against the inevitability of death and its tendency to leave one’s life bereft of meaning. Besides such classically existential topics as death, meaninglessness and choice, this volume also presents novel theories which describe the cultural trauma felt by indigenous populations in the aftermath of colonization, as well as peoples’ motivation to maintain a coherent and stable reality in the wake of traumatic events, and finally such topics as the problem of free will and the effects of ostracism.

Most people are confronted at some point in their lives with an event that changes their view on how and why to live. Each chapter in this volume provides a broad theoretical background revolving around these kinds of recognizable topics, which will most likely be familiar to most readers’ own personal narratives. However the advantage of an existential method of inquiry can also lead to its own dangers and limitations, specifically in the sense that existential theories are often more descriptive than prescriptive, which can make it hard to operationalise many of the hypotheses presented in the course of the book. For example, ostracism as a existential predicament is related to the idea that being ignored can cause people to feel their existence is under scrutiny, however it is hard to imagine how one could measure whether people literally feel non-existent? However, this criticism is a relatively minor one, and the authors do take care to convey the practical advantages of the existential mode of inquiry, making this handbook of experimental existential psychology a classic in the social psychology literature.


Greenberg, J., Koole, S. L., & Pyszczynski, T. Eds. (2004). Handbook of Experimental Existental Psychology. New York: The Guilford Press

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