Thinking About Death Motivates Athletes To Do Better

corybeckersite | November 4, 2016

Colin Zestcott PhD Graduate Student
University of Arizona What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: We are very interested in terror management theory, which was developed by Jeff Greenberg (one of the co-Authors of the paper) and his colleagues in the late 80’s. The theory is a very broad motivational theory that may help explain why people do the things they do in many different contexts. The theory explains why people need self esteem and why they care so much about their cultural worldviews.

Athletes use many different motivational techniques to improve their performance in sport. Our idea was to apply an experimental social psychology theory–Terror Management Theory (TMT)–as one novel way to improve performance in basketball. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski & Solomon, 1986) self-esteem and cultural worldviews help human beings avoid worrying about their inevitable mortality, by convincing them that they are more than just material creatures that are destined to die and decay; that they have meaning, purpose and value, and that they may somehow continue to exist after they die, either literally, as in religious beliefs in the afterlife, or symbolically, through their achievements, relationship and identification with groups. According to TMT self-esteem is defined as the feeling that one is a valuable member of a meaningful universe.

One of the basic hypotheses testing this theory is the mortality salience hypothesis, which posits that if self-esteem and cultural worldviews provide people with psychological protection against their awareness of death, than reminding people of death should increase their need to validate their worldviews and attain self-esteem. This hypothesis has so far been supported by over 500 studies in more than 25 different cultures, showing that after being primed with thoughts of death, people behave in ways that validate their worldviews and increase their self-esteem. Furthermore, studies found that increasing people’s sense of self-esteem protects them from subsequent anxiety. For example early studies by Jeff Greenberg and his colleagues, demonstrated how boosting peoples’ sense of self-esteem protects them from subsequent anxiety when they are expecting painful electric shocks or when they are watching gory images of death. Because our participants were people who reported liking basketball and caring about their performance in sports, and considering that doing well in sports should increase their sense of self-esteem, we hypothesized that reminding them of death would motivate them to play better. And of course, when you are more motivated to do well that improves your actual performance.

In Study 1, results showed that a mortality salience induction led to improved performance in a “one-on-one” basketball game. In Study 2, a subtle death prime led to higher scores on a basketball shooting task, which was associated with increased task related self-esteem. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The goal of our research was to apply TMT to the world of sport in order to further understand its psychological function and to utilize this understanding to improve athletic performance in sport among those who value it.

We believe that these results replicate and extend our understanding of existential concerns as a motivator of daily life. These results may also promote our understanding of sport and provide a novel potential way to improve athletic performance. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: We hope that future research can extend these results to examine performance in sports outside of basketball as well as look at the impact of death related primes on group sport activities. Moreover, we think assessing the impact of death primes on professional athletes can be a fruitful research avenue. We also hope that other labs may replicate these effects among professional athletes or in other domains other than sports, in which people find their work meaningful and derive self esteem from doing a good job. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: While we are encouraged by these results, they are only reflective of two studies. We encourage other researchers to replicate and extend these findings to provide a more thorough understanding of sport as a terror management function. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


Colin A. Zestcott, Uri Lifshin, Peter Helm, Jeff Greenberg. He Dies, He Scores: Evidence that Reminders of Death Motivate Improved Performance in Basketball. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2016; 1 DOI: 10.1123/jsep.2016-0025

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