6 min read

Terror Management Theory: The Role and Meaning of Death

Terror Management Theory: The Role and Meaning of Death

"I think for people whose backs were against the wall and who've thought that their survival depended on the communists not winning, then seeing the evidence doesn't mean that you change your mind."

That's Duong Van Mai Elliott – more commonly known just as Mai Elliot – who interviewed prisoners of war and defectors from Communist Vietnam during the horrid Vietnam War of the 20th century.

Here, Mai Elliot is reminiscing about a particular interview she did with a captured member of the Viet Cong – a.k.a a communist, a.k.a her enemy. Sat in front of her was a person part of the political and social organization that seemed to threaten her well-being, her life, and her family.

She was married to an American, lived in accordance with his lifestyle and ideology, and her family lived in the parts of Vietnam the Viet Cong was seemingly threatening.

However as the war continued, more and more evidence showed that her side was going to lose. Mai Elliot interviewed people who she believed and was continuously told were beginning to surrender, only to see firsthand that this was not true.

But did this clear proof that her worldview was flawed change her mind? Here's Elliot again:

"Seeing the evidence just increases your fear because you fear that, you know, that the communists would win and it would be the end of you and your family and you don't want to face it, you know, you don't want to think about it." (Gladwell, 2016)

Is Elliot irrational for ignoring such clear evidence? To turn her back – alongside the president and thousands of other Americans – against the truth and reality of the war? If you and your family's lives were at stake, would we be able to convince ourselves otherwise?

An idea from social psychology named "Terror Management Theory" tells us that it is not.

To begin, what is Terror Management Theory?

Terror Management Theory (TMT from now on) proposes that our 'animalistic' instincts of fight-or-flight against threats to life and the cognitive abilities that allow humans to be aware that death is inevitable, "creates an everpresent potential for intense anxiety, or terror, which must be managed continuously" (Greenberg and Arndt 2011). Our culture, religions, societies, etc serve to help manage this terror and anxiety – to make death less salient.

Or in the words of Ernest Becker (1973), the main inspiration for this theory:

The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man (Becker 1973: PREFACE)

TMT further argues that humans manage this fear of death by creating/sharing a worldview that allows us to believe that we can "...endure beyond death either literally through an everlasting soul [i.e going to heaven], symbolically through a death transcending identity [i.e legacy, being a hero etc],  or for most worldviews, in both ways [i.e martyrdom] (Greenberg and Arndt 2011:402).

Phew! That's a lot. Take a second to read through it or think about this. TMT makes quite a statement!

Let's try to break the theory down:

  1. Humans have a fight-or-flight instinct that does everything to avoid threats to life.
  2. Humans also have cognitive abilities that allow us to conceptualize and become aware of the inevitability of our own death.
  3. Numbers 1 and 2 are incompatible, as being aware of our inevitable death and having an instinct that is threatened by it is no good.
  4. So, humans must manage this terror.
  5. Historically, humans seem to manage this terror by creating worldviews and cosmologies that allow us to make sense of death or by literally transcending it (i.e heaven).  
  6. This worldview supports our self-esteem, allowing us to become meaningful contributors to our own imagined world and not be constantly overwhelmed by the thought and threat of death.

With this, let's return to Mai Elliot's dilemma during her interview of the Vietnam War. Sat in front of her was living evidence that her worldview – that communists are thugs and that her side will win – is false. Furthermore, some of her colleagues even report the same idea: that the United States is going to lose.

But then what does she do? In an academic textbook that proposes perfect human rationality in accordance with the evidence, we'd expect her to simply change her mind. Saying, "Oh! I was wrong, I'm now convinced and going to think otherwise."

Instead, she ignores the evidence and retreats even deeper into her worldview.

But this begins to make sense when we borrow ideas from TMT. Elliot was on the ground, seeing people dying and being killed. She knew firsthand the immediate threat to her family and her own life. And to cope with this, there was a worldview provided to her that protected her from this anxiety. So even in the face of emerging and almost irrefutable evidence, Elliot refuses to acknowledge this reality.

Not because she believes the evidence to be false, but because by admitting to this evidence, she will break down the protective barrier against the terror and anxiety of death. The threat of evidence to her worldview increased her adherence, faith, and belief in it – not the other way around.

This is one of the profound findings of TMT. The odd, almost paradoxical reality that a threat to one's worldview – which protects one from the dread of death – pushes people to adhere to that worldview stronger. Moreover, it need not be an actual opposition to their worldview, but merely the reminder of death that can have this effect.

A study in 2013 by Dr. Burke, Kosloff, and Landau showed that just being reminded that we will die increased adherence to a person's preexisting political orientation. But what's important is that this "reinforcement" of our worldview takes time. When we are faced with something that reminds us of death, our immediate reaction is to get rid of that thought of reminder. Only once this explicit thought of death – or mortality salience (MS) – is removed from the center of attention, the possibility to engage in thoughts of death is increased, which in turn bolsters one's worldview.

Basically, once death is reintroduced into our mind (via a curious scientist or news report), we resort to our preexisting worldviews to help us manage that terror.

However, the problem is that we not only strengthen our adherence to our preconceived worldviews when thinking of death, it can also lead to aggression and derogation against those who think differently.

In 2008, Dr. Joseph Hayes and his colleagues conducted an experiment with a group of Christians. For one group, they read a Muslim news article that threatened their worldview of Christianity. The other group read a non-threatening piece of writing. Then afterward, the two groups were both informed that 117 Muslims had died in a plane crash. How did they respond?

When the group read the threatening article, they defended their worldview; their terror management systems went up. But when they were later informed about the death of the Muslim people, it actually reduced their worldview defense.

The death of the people who believed in the worldview opposed to theirs decreased the threat of death. The same has been seen in countries at war against each other, and other worldviews or belief systems.

To put it more bluntly, the death of our perceived enemies can put our minds at ease.

Now, this is no easy pill to swallow. I suspect that for many – including myself – our terror management defense systems may be firing! The fact that the death of other human beings can soothe our anxiety of death, threatens our worldview of human rights and global peace. But, let's take a real-life, personal example to test this.

If you are a US citizen or adherence to the "western" worldview, did you or your family celebrate when Osama bin Laden was announced dead? If this doesn't resonate with you, think of any past war that your country won and celebrates.

Just take a moment.

To end, I'd like to introduce two quotes that illustrate TMT further and can be some food for thought as you may ponder upon the validity of this theory.

"If we don't have the omnipotence of god, we at least can destroy like gods" (Becker 1973:85).

This quote from Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Denial of Death", is hard to deny outright without invoking the thought of TMT.

“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life” (Baldwin 1963)

And this quote from James Baldin – in his book "The Fire Next Time", needs no more commentary.

Terrified, Insecure, and Dying

Beginning next week, I will be sending chapters of my upcoming book for free, titled "Terrified, Insecure, and Dying," alongside an audio version I recorded myself. I don't wish to make money off of this production, just to share and enter a dialogue about these difficult topics.

The book centers around this issue of death and how it can be used to better understand colonialism, conquest, and human aggression. We will explore a variety of events such as the beginning of agriculture, Napoleon Bonaparte's downfall, the environmental degradation of Michigan, the Japanese empire, and much more.

If you wish to support my work, please consider doing so through my website at www.hosannafukuzawa.com/support-me, for just a cup of coffee a month.

See you next week,