Terror Management Theory (TMT) states humans have an unconscious existential anxiety arising from awareness of morality. In an attempt to buffer ourselves from this anxiety we create cultures to give life meaning. Our contributions to these cultures (e.g. inventions, novels, policies, etc.) are a means of living on symbolically after physical death. So when someone threatens our culture, they threaten us, which explains why people are prejudiced towards other cultures, races and ethnicities.
Initially, Terror Management Theory aroused defensiveness in me, on a personal level and as if I were defending society in North America. How could fear of death play such an important yet discreet role in culture? How could we elect incompetent politicians just because they promise to protect us from threats? How could my noble artistic aspirations be influenced by a pitiful fear of dying?
After setting sensitivity aside, I embarked on a project for the Ernest Becker Foundation to categorize academic research into important social issues such as women’s rights, racism, terrorism, criminal justice and mental health. In the process of reading research abstracts, I came to understand the profound influence of death anxiety on how people see different cultures, religions, policies and themselves.
I saw that fear of death underlies much of humanity’s violence and neuroticism, as well as positive social contributions and smart personal choices.
Culture buffers death anxiety because it offers a source of self-esteem. By participating in a culture we receive self-validation and identity: without identity we would be too vulnerable to fears of death, especially symbolic death. Self-esteem has many sources, and social connectedness is at the top of the list. This insight is poignant in the discovery that many smokers do not respond to public health ads because they see smoking as a source of self-esteem, as smoking creates a channel for social connection (Martin 2010). No wonder Marlboro Man was so effective.
Social connections in light of death primes (i.e. events which make people think about their own death) can cause all sorts of positive attitudes and behaviors. They can increase creativity when participants are told creativity bolsters social connections (Routledge 2008). They can cause people to vote for compassionate leaders when compassion is a cultural value (Vail 2009). Even more intimacy with a romantic partner can be a powerful death anxiety buffer (Nakonezny 2004).
Culture is the vehicle for social connections and visa versa. So it is the development of social connections within the architecture of culture that not only buffers death anxiety, but also drives compassion, healthy choices and creative expression.
Other than establishing more and deeper relationships, people can focus on intrinsic activities to ward off death anxiety. An intrinsic activity does not have any social recognition attached to it. You are not engaged in the activity to look attractive, powerful, smart, fit, etc. You are doing it because it gives you inner joy. Working on a novel, a car or a delicious meal are good examples. Research shows people who have been exposed to death over a longer period of time shift their life focus towards intrinsic goals (Landau 2008). It also shows people who practice religion for its inner rewards, rather than social recognition, are less defensive of their worldviews when asked to think about their own mortality (Jonas 2006).
Reviewing hundreds of TMT related abstracts helped me see how violence and prejudice arise in part from failing to consider how death anxiety distorts our judgment of others. It also helped me to let go of the desire for pure intentions in the creative process; in this case the journey and outcome eclipse intention. In my opinion, this research supports the wisdom of storytellers who speak of someone who struggled to make sense of a harsh world. The ending, however, always turns out well because this character puts people and passions before possessions and prestige.
After studying Anthropology in Graduate School, Bo lived in Hawaii for a while where he practiced meditation, yoga and permaculture. Then he studied music and played guitar for cancer patients at Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis, Oregon. You can find Bo’s music at www.bodarc.bandcamp.com. More recently, Bo moved to Seattle and has been substitute teaching and volunteering for various social justice organizations. He hopes to continue writing about topics that lure curiosity and expand compassion.
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