In spite of its well-publicized troubles, psychology still has the power to give us glimpses into our darkest selves. Think of the enduring lessons ofStanley Milgram’s obedience tests, Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment, Muzafer Sherif’s Robber’s Cave study. Among these classics, I rank terror management theory, which spells out ways in which dread of death, even when we are unaware of it, can derail our reason. Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski conceived the theory three decades ago and have expounded it in scores of papers and two books, including The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, published last year. The theory is especially relevant to the post-9/11 era and current U.S. Presidential race. I honestly believe that if more voters and politicians read Worm at the Core (instead of books that blame war on our genes, and yes, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I’m talking to you!), our politics and foreign policies might become more sane. After interviewing Solomon for Meaningoflife.tv last year, I invited him to give a talk at Stevens Institute of Technology, and he wowed the audience with his wit and baggy shorts. I recently had the following email exchange with him:
Horgan: What’s your morning-TV-sound-bite version of terror management theory?
Solomon: In a proverbial nutshell: Terror management theory, following cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, posits that while human beings share with all forms of life a biological predisposition toward survival in the service of reproduction, we are unique in our capacity to think abstractly, symbolically, and self-reflectively. This trait, while highly adaptive and emotionally uplifting, also gives rise to potentially debilitating existential terror from the awareness that death is inevitable and can occur at any time, and we are (from a purely biological perspective) breathing pieces of defecating meat no more significant or enduring than lizards or potatoes. Humans “manage” this terror by embracing cultural worldviews–beliefs about reality–shared with other group members to convey to each of us a sense that we are valuable individuals in a meaningful universe, and hence eligible for literal and/or symbolic immortality. Accordingly, people are highly motivated (albeit quite unconsciously) to maintain faith in their cultural worldviews and a confidence in their self-worth (i.e. self-esteem); and, threats to cherished beliefs and/or self-esteem instigate defensive efforts to bolster their worldviews and self-esteem.
Horgan: What are your three favorite confirmations of the theory?
Solomon: Municipal court judges reminded of their mortality (by responding to open-ended questions about their thoughts and feelings about their own death) set a bond for an alleged prostitute that was nine times higher ($455) than judges in a control condition ($50) – suggesting that reactions to mortal transgressions are heavily influenced by existential concerns.
Five weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Americans reminded of their mortality or the events of September 11, 2001, reported that they intended to vote for President George W. Bush by an almost 3:1 margin. Americans in a control condition reported that they intended to vote for Senator John Kerry by a 4:1 margin – suggesting that subtle alterations in psychological conditions can have profound effects on political preferences that could skew the outcome of close elections.
Dozens of studies have shown that death reminders increase our support for people who share our cherished beliefs, and increase our hostility and disdain for people who are opposed to our beliefs. In some of these studies, people are reminded of death by doing a task on a computer while the word “death” or “dead” is flashed for 28 milliseconds, so fast that no one reports seeing anything. These studies are important because they demonstrate that intimations of mortality influence attitudes and behavior even when we are quite unconscious of them.
Horgan: Is Freudian psychoanalysis useful to you?
Solomon: Yes and no.
Freud asked great questions. E.g., Why War? (his famous exchange with Albert Einstein), Civilization and its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion are profoundly provocative and important books. He also understood (long before the “cognitive revolution” in academic psychology caught up with him a century later) the powerful role of unconscious motivation and cognition. Moreover, Freud recognized the central role that concerns about death played in human affairs:
Is it not for us to confess that in our civilized attitude towards death we are once more living psychologically beyond our means, and must reform and give truth its due? Would it not be better to give death the place in actuality and in our thoughts which properly belongs to it, and to yield a little more prominence to that unconscious attitude towards death which we have hitherto so carefully suppressed? This hardly seems indeed a greater achievement, but rather a backward step…but it has the merit of taking somewhat more into account the true state of affairs…. Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death
On the other hand, Freud’s “death instinct,” where Freud extends the idea of entropy in the natural world to humans have an innate desire to die, is in my estimation the ultimate “reaction formation,” in that (as Ernest Becker noted in The Denial of Death) Freud was terrified of his own death. We agree with Becker’s take that what underlies most human evil is not destruction as an external projection of the desire to die but rather destruction as an external projection of existential anxiety in order to deny or transcend death.
Horgan: Is evolutionary psychology useful to you?
Solomon: Yes and no.
Evolutionary psychologists are correct to insist that theories of human behavior be framed in ways that are compatible with contemporary theories of evolution. But (perhaps not surprisingly) we take ardent issue with their claim that terror management theory is at odds with evolutionary theory and that death anxiety could not have served as a selection pressure to instigate adaptations. In our work we have tried to provide an evolutionary account of how the problem of death arose in our ancestors as an unintended consequence of burgeoning consciousness and how terror management processes developed in order to render consciousness a viable form of mental organization.
Ajit Varki and Danny Brower make a similar argument as ours in Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind (2013).
Horgan: Do you have any ideas for solving the replication crisis in psychology/social science?
Solomon: I am not convinced that there is a replication crisis in psychology/social science beyond the obvious fraud of people like Diederik Stapel.
We have always been careful in our studies to use large sample sizes, multiple manipulations of our independent variables, and multiple dependent measures in order to provide convergent validity for our theoretically derived hypotheses. The fact that a well-replicated finding can no longer be taken seriously because of a small sample size (despite obtaining a theoretically predicted effect multiple times) strikes me as an inane fetish, and sometimes effect sizes are not as important as their current champions propose.
I like Roy Baumeister’s take on these matters in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, in an article entitled: “Charting the future of social psychology on stormy seas: Winners, losers, and recommendations.”
Horgan: Noam Chomsky once said that we may “always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” Do you agree?
Two of my favorite examples:
Integral parts of the human whole: the necessity of destruction to procure alimentary sustenance: the painful character of the ultimate functions of separate existence, the agonies of birth and death: the monotonous menstruation of simian and (particularly) human females extending from the age of puberty to the menopause: inevitable accidents at sea, in mines and factories: certain very painful maladies and their resultant surgical operations, innate lunacy and congenital criminality, decimating epidemics: catastrophic cataclysms which make terror the basis of human mentality…. James Joyce, Ulysses.
…it has always seemed to me that the only painless death must be that which takes the intelligence by violent surprise and from the rear so to speak since if death be anything at all beyond a brief and peculiar emotional state of the bereaved it must be a brief and likewise peculiar state of the subject as well and if aught can be more painful to any intelligence above that of a child or an idiot than a slow and gradual confronting with that which over a long period of bewilderment and dread it has been taught to regard as an irrevocable and unplumbable finality, I do not know it. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom.
Horgan: Do you fear death?
Solomon: Yes; I’ve been exceptionally disinclined to die ever since I was 8 years old, the day my grandmother died. I was sad about her death but then got to thinking that this meant that my mother would also get old and die, which was disconcerting in part because I wondered who would then make me dinner. Then as I was perusing the dead American presidents in my stamp collection I came to the blood curdling realization that I would eventually get old (if I was lucky!) and expire – a most unwelcome realization that I am still struggling to come to terms with.
Horgan: Do you believe in God? An afterlife?
Solomon: No God; and no afterlife per se, except in the Epicurean sense that the atoms that I am composed of have been swirling around for eons and will continue their cosmic journey in other forms once I am defunct.
Horgan: What’s your best advice for helping people cope with their mortality?
Solomon: Great question, and I’m not sure that there’s any “right” way to come to terms with one’s mortality, although this has been a central concern of theologians and philosophers since antiquity. We lay out various approaches to coming to terms with death in the last chapter (“Living with Death”) of The Worm at the Core.
Horgan: Can self-knowledge lead to happiness?
Solomon: Yes and no. The ancients had a point in Ecclesiastes: “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” On the other hand, I think that a healthy dose of self-knowledge is humbling and builds character.
Horgan: Do you think science will ever make us immortal?
Solomon: Perhaps, but I hope not. I’m all for advances in medicine and extending human life (except if I have to eat like a bird for this to happen!), but the idea that death is an affront to human dignity that needs to be completely eliminated strikes me as arrogant (and selfish) homocentric death denial. Moreover, as the ancients noted, immortality would make life meaningless and banal—all of our most cherished human values like courage and generosity would be inconsequential if we existed in perpetuity.
Horgan: What insights can terror-management theory provide into the U.S. “war on terror”?
Solomon: Most of the U.S. “war on terror” (as we noted in our 2003 book In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror) was a thinly veiled effort to manage existential terror, rather than to make us (or the world) safer. In our studies conducted after 9/11, we found that death reminders increased Americans’ support for restricting personal freedoms (i.e. The Patriot Act), and for pre-emptive nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks against countries that pose no direct threat to us. After 9/11, former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger said, “You have to kill some of these people; even if they were not directly involved, they need to be hit.” That’s been the primary focus of the “war on terror” in my estimation.
Horgan: Can terror-management theory help explain the Donald Trump phenomenon?
Solomon: Yes, at least in part. After 9/11, President Bush garnered tremendous support by declaring that he would rid the world of evil and that he believed God had chosen him at that perilous time. This, combined with the death fears aroused by the attacks, boosted Americans’ support for him and probably got him re-elected in 2004. Now in 2015/16, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels, Donald Trump has promised to make America great again by building a giant wall to keep immigrants out and bombing the shit out of ISIS. And indeed, in our most recent study, New Yorkers reminded of their mortality were more supportive of Donald Trump and reported being more willing to vote for him.
Horgan: What’s your utopia?
Solomon: Staying alive long enough to see that my children are relatively settled and economically secure and knowing that there’s a decent chance that the earth will not be reduced to a festering heap long before the sun explodes!
Postscript: I learned about terror-management theory from What Is Death?, a wonderful book by environmental scientist Tyler Volk.
John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include The End of Science and The Undiscovered Mind. This article is adapted from his Scientific American blog Cross-Check.