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Does our fear of death govern our reaction to tragedy?

corybeckersite | November 19, 2015

Last Friday, in the afternoon, I got up from my desk to walk to the printer, and I looked up to the TV screen that hangs in our newsroom. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the soccer game between Germany and France, but you know what I saw instead.

The city of Paris was under siege.

I checked Facebook. One of my French friends had simply posted “Quelle horreur.”

I was born and raised in Germany and I started texting friends who live in France. I stared at my Twitter feed for updates. I felt sad, and shocked, and angry. Scared.

My Facebook friends started to change their profile pictures in solidarity, so did yours, I’m sure.

All week, I listened to the radio, bringing us the latest from Paris, a city in mourning.

I looked at pictures of the victims. I wondered why they were all so beautiful.

Almost immediately after the attacks, though, another thing started happening. It’s to some extent an “age of the 24-hour news cycle and social media” phenomenon. In happier days, I refer to it as “thinkpiece bingo.”

You probably know what I’m talking about; after any event of consequence, we almost immediately start dissecting what it means, and we discuss and endlessly hash out how we should think about it. Somebody opines “Here’s what this means.”

“Not at all,” comes the response.

“Here’s the one thing that nobody gets about this.”

“Nonsense!”

And on and on it goes. We argue. We bicker. We leave nasty comments. We unfriend each other.

Now here’s a question for you – a theory – what if all of this behavior was really motivated by our fear of death?

I’ve had a book on my desk for a while – reporter Elana Gordon had urged me to take a look. It’s called “The Worm at the Core: On The role of Death in Life,” and it builds on the thinking of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who died in 1974.

“What Becker argued is that people are unique in all of the animal kingdom because we are so smart that we actually realize that we exist,” explained Sheldon Solomon, a professor of psychology at Skidmore college. Knowing that we exist is good, but it’s also terrifying.

“It makes us realize we’re going to die, that we could die at any time, and really, that we are not much more enduring than lizards or potatoes,” said Solomon.

Now, imagine if our inevitable death was the only thing we thought about.  How would we function?
Solomon and his colleagues built on Becker’s work and developed “terror management theory” which argues that we find ways to minimize our existential terror. One way to do that is to embrace strong beliefs about the world around us, to give it order and meaning, to be part of a tribe or nation that will persist over time. Immortality – of sorts.

And, because there is so much at stake here, we will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain faith in our beliefs.

Solomon set out to test this theory in experiments.

If Becker is right, if terror management theory is right, then whenever you are reminded of your mortality you should cling to your beliefs more strongly,” said Sheldon.

His group ran many experiments. For example they asked two groups of Christian students how they felt about other Christian and Jewish students. If the Christian students were first reminded of their own mortality, they liked the Jewish students less, and Christian students more. The control group did not differentiate by religion. They tested this all over the world, and found similar results regardless of religion or nationality.

Solomon said being reminded of our mortality doesn’t just influence our thinking, but also potentially our behavior – which could have grave consequences.

“We did studies in Iran where Iranians were more enthusiastic about suicide bombings after being reminded of their mortality,” said Solomon.

He said he saw terror management theory play out on social media following the Paris attacks – in an outpouring of support for the French and the Western democratic way of life – but also in hostility toward anything remotely Islamic.

“It’s not a bad thing to be proud of our way of life, but we have to ask ourselves, what’s the toll that has on those around us,” he said.

After the Paris attacks, a lot of people made a case on social media that we “didn’t care enough” about terrorist attacks in Beirut.

Solomon argues that terror management theory could explain that, to some extent.

“We don’t have to be happy with this, but it is a fact that humans are territorial and tribal animals. From an evolutionary standpoint, we survive because of our concern for a particular group that we consider ourselves members of,” said Solomon.

“There is some research that suggests that when disasters befall other people who we consider our enemies, that helps assuage our own death anxiety.”

Solomon says the fear of death is part of the human makeup, but being aware of our underlying death anxiety would be a good start. “Understanding that when death anxiety becomes problematic is when we repress it, when we are not conscious of it. When we despise people who are different, when death fears make us inclined to do things that are self destructive.”

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

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