As graduate students at the University of Kansas in the late 1970s Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and I were interested in understanding the psychological underpinnings of prejudice and ethnic conflict as well as the nature and function of self-esteem. In 1980, I accidentally stumbled across the work of the late cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who in books such as The Birth and Death of Meaning (1962), The Denial of Death (1973), and Escape From Evil (1975) argued that the uniquely human awareness of death, and the denial thereof, guides and directs a substantial proportion of human behavior. According to Becker, culture consists of humanly created (albeit quite unconsciously) beliefs about the nature of reality shared by individuals in groups to reduce or eliminate the potentially overwhelming terror engendered by the awareness of death by providing a sense of meaning and value that in turn confers the possibility of literal and/or symbolic immortality. Terror management theory resulted from our efforts to translate Beckers ideas into a formal theory that could be subjected to empirical scrutiny.
According to terror management theory, people “manage” the potential terror associated with death through a dual-component anxiety-buffer consisting of a cultural worldview (beliefs about the nature of reality that provide a sense that the universe is meaningful, orderly, and stable and that provisions for immortality) and self-esteem (the perception that one is living up to the standards of value associated with the social role inhabited by individuals in the context of their culture, and hence rendering them eligible for safety and security in this life and immortality thereafter).
Thus, while cultures vary considerably, they share the same defensive psychological function in common: to provide meaning and value and in so doing bestow psychological equanimity in the face of death. All cultural worldviews are ultimately shared fictions, in the sense that none of them are likely to be literally true, and their existence is generally sustained by social consensus. When everyone around us believes the same thing, we can be quite confident of the veracity of our beliefs.
But, and here’s the rub, when we do encounter people with different beliefs, this poses a challenge to our death-denying belief systems, which is why people are generally quite uncomfortable around, and hostile towards, those who are different. Additionally, because no symbolic cultural construction can actually overcome the physical reality of death, residual anxiety is unconsciously projected onto other groups of individuals as scapegoats, who are designated all-encompassing repositories of evil, the eradication of which would make earth as it is in heaven. We then typically respond to people with different beliefs or scapegoats by berating them, trying to convert them to our system of beliefs, and/or just killing them and in so doing assert that “my God is stronger than your God and we’ll kick your ass to prove it.”
In order to test terror management theory, we designed what we call the mortality salience paradigm, which basically entails asking people to think about their own death (e.g., by asking them to respond to some questions about dying, or by subliminal exposure to death-related words, or being interviewed in front of a funeral parlor) and then asking them to make judgments about people or events that either bolster or threaten important aspects of the individuals cultural worldviews. We hypothesize that to the extent that culture serves a death-denying function, then making mortality salient should increase affection and altruistic behavior toward those who share or uphold cherished cultural beliefs, as well as increase hostility and disdain to those who disagree with cherished beliefs, or merely hold different ones.
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