The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life— Review

This readable study by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski attempts to measure the influence of mortal terror on human affairs

By Tim Lott | Originally posted at The Guardian

Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (1973) made the striking claim that human activity is driven largely by unconscious efforts to deny and transcend mortality. “We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of underlying helplessness and terror of our inevitable death,” observed Becker. The authors of The Worm at the Core extended Becker’s work with a presentation in 1984 at a meeting of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. They called it “Terror Management Theory”. The reception was lukewarm. As the authors recount, “renowned psychologists were storming for the exits”.

Undeterred, they approached the journal of the American Psychological Association with a paper on the theory of terror management. The editor insisted their ideas wouldn’t be taken seriously unless some hard evidence could be provided (Becker’s work was built largely around psychoanalytic theory rather than empirical research).

The authors spent the next 25 years measuring the influence of the fear of death on human affairs. The results not only confirmed Becker’s speculation but built on it. “Over the course of human history,” they write, “the terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics and science. It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in New York.”

The book addresses the two pillars of terror management – cultural worldviews and self-esteem. To demonstrate how fears about death influence societal opinion, judges were prompted to set a bail figure nine times higher for a (putative) prostitute after being reminded of death. This, and substantial other evidence, suggests that reminders of death accentuate our negative feelings towards those who do not share our values. The closer our death fears are to the surface, the more we cleave to social norms – not necessarily those of wider society, but any group we have chosen to identify with (on this definition even support for, say, Islamic State, is an assertion of a “social norm” and therefore an extension of our “immortality projects”. Suicide bombers ultimately act out of fear of death).

Consciousness of death also, crucially, feeds into people’s assessment of their own worth. “Unlike the baboon who gluts himself only on food, man nourishes himself mostly on self-esteem,” wrote Becker in The Birth and Death of Meaning (1962). Intriguingly, the greater your fear of death, the lower your self-esteem – and vice versa. Self-esteem provides psychological protection against existential terror.

The book also charts the history of man’s relationship with death, asserting that it was primary in creating civilisation. Religion did not develop as an offshoot of settled society – it seems probable that the earliest settlements, marking the stage of human development from hunter gathering to agriculture, were built around sites of ritual and worship. The need for immortality predated the requirement of settled economic activity. Strategies for denying death have been there since the dawn of human cognition – the cave paintings at Chauvet, dating back 30,000 years, featured spirit realms and depictions of the supernatural world.

In the modern secular world, we seek to overcome death through fringe cod-scientific activities such as cryogenics. More subtly, we convince ourselves that scientific progress, by curing cancer, or finding a way to upload a human personality on to a hard disk, will rescue us from oblivion. Meanwhile, we distract ourselves from our mortal terror – which would impair functional human activity were it allowed free rein – by working hard, staying busy, shopping and entertainment. Or we seek immortality via the everyday heroism of our jobs, by means of our children who will carry our genes forward, or through connections with our ancestors (hence our obsession with the family tree). For those who have the capacity to create, works of art and invention will stand as our legacy.

The idea that nearly all human individual and cultural activity is a response to death sounds far-fetched. But the evidence the authors present is compelling and does a great deal to address many otherwise intractable mysteries of human behaviour. This is an important, superbly readable and potentially life-changing book – if uncomfortable at times. The lesson contained within The Worm at the Core suggests one should confront mortality in order to live an authentic life, as the Epicureans and the Stoics suggested many centuries ago.

Denial does not remove the problem of death – it merely buries it. This can lead not only to an intractable and inflexible worldview, but collective neuroticism – all in the service of creating an effective psychological barrier against reality. Yet for those with courage and clear-sightedness, facing up to our common destinies can mark a kind of rebirth. As Camus wrote: “Face up to death. Thereafter anything is possible.”