Terror Management Theory

Terror Management Theory (TMT) was developed in 1986 by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon based upon Ernest Becker’s ideas.

TMT posits that while humans share with all life-forms a biological predisposition toward self-preservation in the service of reproduction, we are unique in our capacity for symbolic thought, which fosters self-awareness and the ability to reflect on the past and ponder the future. This spawns the realization that death is inevitable and can occur at any time for reasons that cannot be anticipated or controlled.

The awareness of death engenders potentially debilitating terror that is “managed” by the development and maintenance of cultural worldviews: humanly constructed beliefs about reality shared by individuals that minimize existential dread by conferring meaning and value. All cultures provide a sense that life is meaningful by offering an account of the origin of the universe, prescriptions for appropriate behavior, and assurance of immortality for those who behave in accordance with cultural dictates. Literal immortality is afforded by souls, heavens, afterlives, and reincarnations associated with all major religions. Symbolic immortality is obtained by being part of a great nation, amassing great fortunes, noteworthy accomplishments, and having children.

Psychological equanimity also requires that individuals perceive themselves as persons of value in a world of meaning. This is accomplished through social roles with associated standards. Self-esteem is the sense of personal significance that results from meeting or exceeding such standards.

Three lines of research provide empirical support for TMT:

  • The anxiety-buffering function of self-esteem is established by studies where momentarily elevated self-esteem results in lower self-reported anxiety and physiological arousal.
  • Making death salient by asking people to think about themselves dying (or viewing graphic depictions of death, being interviewed in front of a funeral parlor, or subliminal exposure to the word “dead” or “death”) intensifies strivings to defend their cultural worldviews by increasing positive reactions to similar others, and negative reactions toward those who are different.
  • Research verifies the existential function of cultural worldviews and self-esteem by demonstrating that non-conscious death thoughts come more readily to mind when cherished cultural beliefs or self-esteem is threatened.

TMT has generated empirical research (currently more than 500 studies) examining a host of other forms of human social behavior, including aggression, stereotyping, needs for structure and meaning, depression and psychopathology, political preferences, creativity, sexuality, romantic and interpersonal attachment, self-awareness, unconscious cognition, martyrdom, religion, group identification, disgust, human-nature relations, physical health, risk taking, and legal judgments.

In 2015, Greenberg, Pyszczynski and Solomon published The Worm at the Core, which reviews this vast body of research supporting Becker’s central claim that the fear of death is “the mainspring of human activity.”

Related Books
In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror
The Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology

TMT Website
Flight From Death

Reviews of The Worm at the Core
The Guardian, July 31, 2015
New Statesman, September 1, 2015
The National Interest, August 24, 2015
The Chronicle, May 22, 2015
The Atlantic, May 28, 2015