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date: 03 June 2020

Existential Meaning and Terror Management

Summary and Keywords

Terror management theory (TMT) posits that the uniquely human awareness of death engenders potentially debilitating existential terror that is “managed” by subscribing to cultural worldviews providing a sense that life has meaning as well as opportunities to obtain self-esteem, in pursuit of psychological equanimity in the present and literal or symbolic immortality in the future. In empirical support of TMT, research has demonstrated that: self-esteem serves to buffer anxiety in general, and about death in particular; reminders of death increase defense of the cultural worldview and efforts to bolster self-esteem; threats to the cultural worldview or self-esteem increase the accessibility of implicit death thoughts; conscious and non-conscious thoughts of death instigate qualitatively different defensive processes; death reminders increase hostility toward people with different beliefs, affection for charismatic leaders, and support for political and religious extremism; and death reminders magnify symptoms of psychological disorders.

Keywords: terror management theory, Ernest Becker, death, meaning, cultural worldviews, self-esteem, mortality salience, cultural worldview defense, death-thought accessibility, proximal and distal defenses

Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) was originally derived from cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s (1971, 1973, 1975) effort to integrate and synthesize findings from anthropology, biology, psychoanalysis, social psychology and sociology in the service of elucidating the motivational underpinnings of human behavior. In one of his earliest works, The Birth and Death of Meaning, Becker (1971, p. vii) proposed that addressing the question—“What makes people act the way they do?”—required an account of how, and why, human beings construct meaning, as well as the personal and interpersonal ramifications of a dearth of meaning.

The Birth of Meaning

Becker argued that qualitatively different levels of meaning arise in various forms of life as a function of their cognitive complexity. Increasing complexity results in progressive freedom of reactivity, where freedom of reactivity is defined as the extent to which an organism can respond in varied ways to a given stimulus.

At the simplest level, single cellular organisms derive a rudimentary sense of meaning by virtue of responding systematically to specific stimuli in their environments, albeit invariably and insentiently; for example, amoebas move inexorably toward food, and away from very bright light or strongly acidic or alkaline water.

More sophisticated creatures acquire a second level of meaning due to their capacity to learn via classical conditioning: when a naturally occurring response is elicited by a previously neutral stimulus. A bell has no meaning to Pavlov’s hungry dogs hearing it for the first time just prior to being fed; nor does it have any intrinsic connection to the food. However, with repeated pairings, the bell becomes meaningful (“the birth of meaning”) as animals implicitly recognize a contingent association between the bell and food. Moreover, the classically conditioned response can subsequently be elicited by a similar-sounding bell; that is, generalization as a function of perceptual similarity.

Chimps procure a third level of meaning through learning by insight. For example, Sultan, Wolfgang Kohler’s hungry chimp, appeared to suddenly realize that he could stack boxes on top of each other to get at a piece of fruit dangling on a rope from the ceiling. Subsequently, when there were no boxes in the room, Sultan immediately dragged Kohler under the fruit and climbed on him to get the snack. This represents a significant increase in freedom of reactivity over classical conditioning, because Kohler’s chimp was actively engaged in goal-directed instrumental behavior, whereas Pavlov’s dog was passively discerning a contingency between the bell and food. Additionally, whereas generalization in classical conditioning is limited to stimuli that are perceptually similar to the original conditioned stimulus, insight learning produces immediate transfer to novel situations with perceptually dissimilar stimuli: Kohler did not have to look like a box for Sultan to effectively deploy him as a means to get closer to the fruit.

Humans, in addition to deriving meaning from reflexive reactivity, classical conditioning, and insight learning, use symbols in pursuit of meaning. Animals depend on signs, whereby the relationship between a sign and what it signifies is non-arbitrary and (relatively) invariant; for example, a growling dog baring its teeth invariably signifies aggression; the bee’s waggle dance always signifies the location of, and distance from, food. Symbols are, in contrast to signs, arbitrary; for example, cat (English), macska (Hungarian), and gato (Portuguese) all refer to the same small, typically furry, carnivorous mammal, and there is, in principle, no limit to the number of symbols that could be created to refer to the same creature.

For Becker, symbols represent the “birth” of genuinely human meanings. Symbols enabled our ancestors to construct social roles, with associated behavioral norms, that served as a proxy for primate dominance hierarchies (e.g., always defer to whomever is wearing the crown), and reduced uncertainty—and thus enhanced predictability and control—in complex social situations (e.g., females wearing wedding bands are unavailable as potential mates). Additionally, symbols fostered creativity by enabling humans to imagine objects not currently in existence, and ultimately to render the products of their collective imagination in reality. These social and technical innovations allowed humans to live in larger groups, which in turn increased social complexity and the elaboration of consciousness and self-consciousness (Humphrey, 1984), and language (Mithen, 1996).

Self-conscious (“I”)-reflective, time-binding humans could delay immediate reactions in unexpected or novel situations in order to explicitly consider previous experiences and ponder the possible outcomes of future actions. They could also, however, observe family members and friends dying from starvation, natural disasters, hungry predators, or the ravages of time, and by inference, realize that their own deaths were ultimately unavoidable, and indeed, could occur at any time. The realization of personal mortality threatened to undermine, if not totally obliterate, all prior sources of meaning, producing potentially debilitating terror and rendering our ancestors too anxious and/or demoralized to engage in effective instrumental behaviors (Solomon, Greenberg, Schimel, Arndt, & Pyszczysnki, 2004).

The consequent uniquely human existential terror of death was the psychological impetus for the shaping of cultural worldviews: humanly constructed symbolic belief systems that serve to assuage death anxiety by affording an overarching meaning to life and enduring value to the self. Cultural worldviews provide meaning by addressing the universal cosmological questions that invariably arise in a finite self-conscious creature: How did I get here? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What happens to me when I die?

Toward this end, all cultures offer an account of the origin of the universe. All cultures have prescriptions of appropriate conduct associated with specific social roles in the community. All cultures offer some hope of literal and/or symbolic immortality. Literal immortality is based on some aspect of one’s self continuing after death, such as concepts of souls, reincarnations, transmutations, heavens, and afterlives common to most religions; or, on never dying in the first place. Examples of the latter include the fervent quests that have taken place since the age of antiquity for secret potions and fountains of youth, and more recent efforts such as cryogenics, which aims to keep frozen bodies intact until techniques can be developed to revive them or transfer the self from its corporeal container into a more durable computer substrate. Symbolic immortality is derived from the belief that, despite death, some vestige of one’s identity will persist over time; this may be achieved, perhaps, by having children, being part of a mighty and enduring tribe or nation, amassing vast fortunes and monuments to the self, leading transformative political or religious movements, or producing great works of art or science (Lifton, 1979).

Existential meaning acquired by confident adherence to a cultural worldview is necessary, but not sufficient, for psychological equanimity. Additionally, individuals must perceive that they are meeting or exceeding that standard of value associated with the social roles that they inhabit in the context of their worldviews; for example, saving lives for nurses, flying planes for pilots, making money for hedge-fund managers, or successfully raising children for mothers. Self-esteem, the belief that one is a person of value in a world of meaning, serves to buffer anxiety in general, and about death in particular, because it qualifies the individual for the protection and modes of death transcendence provided by the cultural worldview.

Self-esteem acquires its anxiety-buffering properties in the context of socialization. Human infants are born profoundly immature and dependent, and hence prone to anxiety, which serves as the impetus for the formation of physical and psychological attachments to their primary caretakers, who provide their progeny with a pervasive sense of warmth and security when they reliably attend to their needs (Bowlby, 1969). For a year or two parents generally provide infants with unconditional attention, affection, and support. Thereafter, however, infants must be socialized—that is, compelled to do things they don’t want to, and not to do things they do want to—in order to ensure that they adhere to cultural dictates, and to keep them alive. And because infants are too cognitively and emotionally immature to understand parental demands made via gentle persuasion or expressed through rational discourse, parents have no choice but to alter their children’s behavior by the conditional dispensation of affection. Specifically, when children behave appropriately they receive healthy doses of parental approval, resulting in a sense of safety and security. However, parental responses to children’s inappropriate behavior range from punishment to psychological abuse to withholding affection, all of which results in a sense of danger and insecurity (including the possibility of abandonment). Immature, anxiety-prone young children thus associate being good with being safe and secure, and being bad with anxiety, insecurity, and the prospect of abandonment.

Socialization also entails young children becoming intimately acquainted, implicitly and explicitly, with the language, traditions, and beliefs of their culture. Children learn about the culture’s history and major cultural icons in religion, politics, commerce, and entertainment. They become familiar with the culture’s heroes and the villains, and with the notion that good things generally happen to good people. If they are American children, they visit cultural landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial, see Santa at the mall before Christmas, and watch parades on Thanksgiving and fireworks on Independence Day; their physical surroundings serve to corroborate, and fortify faith in, the culture’s depiction of reality. Children learn about various social roles in the culture, especially those they already inhabit and that they are likely to inhabit in the future, along with normative standards of conduct associated with them.

During this time, children also become increasingly aware of, and afraid of death (Anthony, 1972). At first death seems like a reversible state, like a nap, which is awoken from, or a wilted plant, which is resuscitated by rain. Thereafter, death seems avoidable through the magical intercession of gods, heroic figures, or one’s seemingly larger-than-life parents. Eventually, however, children grasp that their parents are both fallible and finite, and that the Grim Reaper will ultimately come calling for them as well. This realization instigates a transference of psychological allegiance from the parents to the culture at large. Garnering self-esteem by meeting the standards associated with one’s social role in the context of one’s culture now confers the same feelings of safety and security formerly obtained by parental affection, while low self-esteem resulting from falling short of cultural standards produces the same anxiety, insecurity, and dread of abandonment that was engendered by a lack of parental approbation in infancy.

This is how cultural worldviews come to serve as bulwarks against potentially overwhelming terror, by affording existential meaning as a basis for self-esteem in pursuit of death transcendence.

All cultural worldviews are arbitrary, “as-if” religious fictions. Arbitrary in the sense that there is more than one way to apprehend the universe, just as there is more than one word that can refer to a cat. “As-if” in the sense that, despite the arbitrary nature of cultural worldviews, the average enculturated individual perceives their cultural worldview as an absolute representation of reality. Religious in the sense that all cultural worldviews are ultimately based on unverifiable (if not downright dubious) assumptions maintained by faith, undergirded by a dollop of magical thinking and bolstered by social consensus, in the service of death denial. Some evangelical Christians eagerly await the “rapture,” the time when believers will be transported to Heaven while nonbelievers are left behind, and when life on earth will become as it is purported to be in Hell. Some secular humanists eagerly await the time when “their consciousness” can be uploaded to cyberspace and they can attain digital immortality. All cultural worldviews are ardent efforts to obscure the fact that we humans are, in the “grand scheme of things,” radically inconsequential carbon-based specks no more significant or enduring than cucumbers or cockroaches, thrust into an unfathomably large universe that is utterly indifferent to our fate.

The Death of Meaning

Embracing cultural worldviews and acquiring self-esteem in the context of them enables humans to function day to day with a fair degree of psychological equanimity. Managing existential terror in this fashion also, however, inevitably results in non-optimal, and occasionally tragic, personal and interpersonal consequences.

Personally, the relative freedom from existential anxiety obtained from effective terror management via adherence to culturally constructed worldviews skews perception and thereby restricts experience. Termites, tarantulas, and ants are culinary delicacies in some cultures, but a dreaded pestilence in need of extermination in others. Homosexual proclivities are indicative of irredeemable depravity punishable by death in some cultures, but is completely acceptable and even highly regarded (sometimes as part of the “normal” transition from adolescence to adulthood) in others. Buxom women are ridiculed and ostracized in some cultures, but are viewed as voluptuous and beautiful in others. These are cultural mandates rather than biological imperatives. We are all, thus, to some extent, victims, as well as beneficiaries, of our cultural worldviews in that each of us is socialized to perceive the world and how to act in it in ways that radically diminish the range of possible experiences that might otherwise be attractive and available to us.

Psychological challenges also arise when self-esteem becomes difficult or impossible to acquire, or when existential meanings are destabilized or entirely obliterated. A middle-aged buxom woman in a culture that venerates youth and linguini-like physiques, or a homosexual in a culture that views this form of sexual expression as an unnatural perversion subject to divine retribution, will both likely suffer from a deficit of self-regard and consequently be riddled with anxiety. Faith in the cultural worldview can also be undermined by natural disasters, historical events, and personal assaults. It is difficult to sustain belief in cherished cultural precepts in the midst of a famine or in the aftermath of a tidal wave or earthquake; or, when indigenous beliefs are undercut by uninvited and unwelcome colonial intrusions; or, when one has been traumatized by physical or sexual abuse. Depending on individuals’ biological predispositions and personal predilections, juxtaposed with cultural and historical factors, chronic low self-esteem or loss of faith in the cultural worldview can result in depression, exacerbation of existing psychological disorders, religious or political conversions, zealous devotion to charismatic leaders committed to religious and political extremism, fanatic commitment to cults and fads, or determined efforts to stay “comfortably numb” in a shopping, television-watching, drugs- and alcohol-consuming, Facebook- and Instagram-scrolling, Snapchatting, Twittering stupor.

On an interpersonal level, to the extent that cultural worldviews serve to manage existential terror, the existence of other cultures with alternative belief systems (that also serve a terror management function for their constituents) is psychologically problematic. People raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God created the earth and all its inhabitants in six days; the Fulani of Nigeria believe that the universe originated from a giant drop of milk. These are mutually exclusive cosmological accounts; consequently, granting the validity of others’ beliefs undermines confidence in one’s own, and thereby risks exposing individuals to the very anxieties that their beliefs formerly mitigated. People typically denigrate and dehumanize those who do not share their beliefs, attempt to convince or compel them to dispose of their alien beliefs and adopt theirs instead, or demonize them as all-encompassing repositories of evil and then proceed to exterminate them accordingly. From this perspective, a substantial proportion of evil in the world stems from self-righteous religious and secular crusades to rid the world of evil (Becker, 1975).

Summary of Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory posits that the juxtaposition of a biological inclination toward self-preservation with sophisticated symbolic proclivities renders human beings explicitly aware of the inevitability, unpredictability, and uncontrollability of death. This realization causes potentially unbearable terror that is managed by perceiving that one is a valued contributor to a meaningful reality. Cultural worldviews provide existential meaning through an account of the origin of the universe, through prescriptions for appropriate conduct as a function of specific social roles, and through promises of literal and symbolic immortality to those deemed of value. Self-esteem, the perception that one is a person of value in a world of meaning, thus provides a sense that some aspect of self endures beyond physical death. Humans are therefore highly motivated to maintain faith in their cultural worldviews and confidence in their self-worth in order to ward off existential terror or despair: “People die and murder, nurture and protect, go to any extreme, in behalf of their conception of the real . . . This is the domain of meaning making, without which human beings in every culture fall into terror” (Bruner, 1996, p. xv).

Empirical Assessments of Terror Management Theory

The Anxiety-Buffering Properties of Self-Esteem

If self-esteem buffers anxiety, then situationally increased or dispositionally high self-esteem should reduce anxiety in response to subsequent threats.

To assess the merits of this hypothesis, Greenberg et al. (1993) gave participants bogus positive or neutral personality feedback in order to elevate their self-esteem or leave it unaltered, and then told them either that emotional people die young, or that emotional people live longer. Participants then rated their own level of emotionality. In response to neutral feedback, participants reported being more emotional when emotionality was associated with longevity, but less emotional when emotionality was associated with an early death. However, following positive feedback, participants’ reports of their emotionality were the same regardless of whether they were told that emotional people died younger or lived longer. Raising self-esteem eliminated the death-denying distortion, and this finding was replicated in a second experiment with a dispositional measure of self-esteem.

In a more direct examination of the anxiety-buffering effects of self-esteem, Greenberg et al. (1992) gave participants positive or neutral feedback about their personality and then had them view graphic depictions of death (including an autopsy and the electrocution of a death-row inmate) or a neutral film (consisting primarily of nature scenes). Although neutral self-esteem participants showed a significant increase in self-reported anxiety in response to the death-related video (verifying the effectiveness of the threat manipulation), those who received a self-esteem boost showed no increase in self-reported anxiety in response to threat. A second study replicated this finding with a different manipulation of self-esteem, a more potent threat, and a physiological measure of anxiety (galvanic skin response). Specifically, after receiving positive feedback, or no feedback, on a supposed IQ test, participants watched a series of colored lights, and some were told they would receive painful electrical shocks during this time. Results indicated that while all participants were more aroused in anticipation of electrical shocks than just by watching colored lights, this effect was significantly diminished when self-esteem was augmented. A third study replicated this moderating effect of the self-esteem boost on galvanic skin response to threat of electric shock.

Taken together, these studies (along with others; see Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004, for a review of this literature) confirm that self-esteem is a potent anxiety buffer and that this effect is not confined to self-esteem-related threats.

Mortality Salience and Worldview Defense

If cultural worldviews serve to manage existential terror, then making people aware of their own mortality (mortality salience; MS) should magnify their need for the protection afforded by their beliefs. This results in efforts to bolster faith in the cultural worldview (cultural worldview defense), reflected by increased agreement with and affection for those who share their beliefs, as well as increased hostility and disdain for those who are opposed to their beliefs, or who merely harbor different beliefs. Mortality salience is typically induced by having people write about their own death, specifically by responding to two open-ended questions: “Please describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.” and “Write down as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are dead.” Control participants respond to parallel questions about neutral activities such as eating or watching television, or aversive but not fatal experiences such as an upcoming exam, failure, being in extreme pain, having a limb amputated, or being socially excluded. Other MS inductions include viewing graphic depictions of death, being interviewed in front of a funeral parlor, or subliminal exposure to the word “dead” or “death.”

In the first MS experiment, Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, and Lyon (1989) predicted and found that municipal court judges reminded of their mortality set substantially higher bonds for an alleged prostitute than judges in the control condition. Additional studies replicated this finding with student participants, but only for those who believed that prostitution was morally reprehensible (this finding established that defensive reactions to MS are not indiscriminately negative, but rather, are limited to culturally relevant beliefs); and also ruled out the possibility that this effect was due to heightened self-awareness, or anxiety or negative affect or autonomic arousal produced by the MS induction. Another study found that, in response to MS, participants recommended a higher monetary reward for a citizen who reputedly behaved in a heroic fashion by thwarting a bank robbery.

To demonstrate more directly that MS intensifies cultural worldview defense, Greenberg et al. (1990) showed that Christian participants had more favorable reactions to fellow Christians and less favorable reactions to Jewish targets in response to MS. This finding was then replicated in the secular realm; specifically, MS increased American participants’ favorable reactions to an essay and its author expressing support for U.S. foreign policy, and increased their negative reactions to an anti-U.S. essay and its author. More recently, studies have shown that religious believers became more confident in the existence of God and in the efficacy of prayer in response to MS (Norenzayan & Hansen, 2006; Jong, Halberstadt, & Bluemke, 2012), and that MS increased Dutch participants’ disagreement with an essay claiming that human progress is illusory (Rutjens, van der Pligt, & van Harreveld, 2009).

Additional research has found that individuals prone to anxiety (e.g., insecurely attachmed) show more vigorous defensive reactions to MS (Mikulincer & Florian, 2000), and that manipulated and chronically high levels of self-esteem reduce defensive reactions to death reminders (Harmon-Jones et al., 1997).

The effects of MS on worldview defense are replicable and robust; specifically, the finding that MS increases support for similar others and condemnation of dissimilar others has been obtained by independent researchers in more than 20 countries on 5 continents (for a meta-analysis of MS studies, see Burke, Martens, & Faucher, 2010).

Mortality Salience and Self-Esteem Striving

When mortality is salient, people strive to boost their self-esteem in addition to defending their cultural worldviews. For example, Israeli soldiers who derived self-esteem from their driving prowess drove faster and more recklessly on a driving simulator in response to MS, presumably to heighten their status as expert drivers (Ben-Ari, Florian, & Mikulincer, 1999). Similarly, in response to MS, people with high body self-esteem identified more with their bodies and showed a greater interest in sex (Goldenberg, McCoy, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000); cigarette smokers who smoked in part because they believed it enhanced their self-image reported being more likely to smoke (Hansen, Winzeler, & Topolinski, 2010); and people who valued basketball skill had higher scores in a basketball-shooting task (Zestcott, Lifshin, Helm, & Greenberg, 2016).

Death-Thought Accessibility

Death reminders increase cultural worldview defense and self-esteem striving, in accord with the central terror management theory claim that existential meaning serves to manage terror. Convergent validity for this claim is provided by studies based on the complementary hypothesis that when cherished aspects of cultural worldviews or self-esteem are threatened, implicit death thoughts, or death thought accessibility (DTA), should come more readily to mind (see Hayes, Schimel, Arndt, & Faucher, 2010 for a meta-analysis of DTA research).

DTA is typically assessed by the number of incomplete word stems completed in death-related ways (e.g., C O F F _ _ could be COFFEE or COFFIN; G R _ V E could be GROVE or GRAVE). For example, DTA increased among participants when Christian fundamentalists were confronted with logical inconsistencies in the Bible (Friedman & Rholes, 2007); when creationists read an article providing strong evidence for evolution, or when Canadians read an article condemning their cultural values (Schimel, Hayes, Williams, & Jahrig, 2007); when Dutch citizens read an article claiming that progress is illusory (Rutjens et al., 2009); and when atheists read an essay arguing that the theory of evolution cannot account for the origin of life, and that was in favor of intelligent design (Hayes et al., 2015).

It has been found that DTA also increases when self-esteem is threatened. For example, Hayes, Schimel, Faucher, and Williams (2008) found that DTA increased after participants received negative feedback about their intelligence, were told their personality was incompatible with their career aspirations, or that they were ill-prepared to give an upcoming speech. Ogilvie, Cohen, and Solomon (2008) found that DTA increased among participants after they were asked to consider undesired aspects of themselves.

The Cognitive and Neuroanatomical Architecture of Terror Management

Both conscious death thoughts, and non-conscious but highly accessible death thoughts, instigate distinct defensive reactions (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999). Proximal defenses suppress death-related thoughts or push the problem of death into the distant future by denying one’s vulnerability. They are (superficially) rational and threat-focused, and are activated when death thoughts are in current focal attention. Distal defenses serve to boost self-esteem and fortify faith in one’s cultural worldview, and function to control the potential for anxiety engendered by the knowledge that death is inevitable. Such defenses are experiential, are not related to the problem of death in any semantic or logical way, and are increasingly activated as DTA increases, up to the point when such thoughts become conscious, and proximal defenses are initiated.

For example, McCabe, Vail, Arndt, and Goldenberg (2014) found that immediately after a typical MS induction, when thoughts of death were presumably still in the participants’ explicit awareness, participants were more swayed by an advertisement plugging the health benefits of a new brand of bottled water, and drank more of the water when offered a sample, when the ad featured a Harvard medical doctor than when it featured the celebrity Jennifer Aniston. This is a proximal defense in that a Harvard doctor’s medical advice is more credible than a celebrity endorsement. A few minutes after the MS induction, however, when death thoughts were likely no longer in their explicit awareness, participants found the Jennifer Aniston ad more compelling than the same ad with the Harvard doctor, and drank more of the water when offered a sample after viewing the former. This is a distal defense in that being aligned with a celebrity boosts self-esteem and bolsters faith in one’s cultural worldview (see Greenberg, Kosloff, Solomon, Cohen, & Landau [2010] for studies demonstrating the existential allure of fame and celebrity).

Additionally, TMT posits that it is the potential to experience anxiety, rather than the actual experience of anxiety, that underlies MS effects. To test this hypothesis, Greenberg et al. (2003) had participants consume a placebo purported to either block anxiety or enhance memory, before reminding them of their mortality. Mortality salience intensified cultural worldview defense in the memory-enhancer condition; however, this effect was eliminated in the anxiety-blocker condition, suggesting that distal MS effects serve to avert anxiety rather than to ameliorate actual anxiety.

Finally, if concerns about mortality pose a unique challenge to sentient humans, then death reminders should activate specific brain regions; indeed, research to date suggests that this is the case (see, e.g., Han, Qin, & Ma, 2010; Quirin et al., 2012).

Existential Terror and Existential Meaning

Charismatic Leaders and Violent Extremism

Sociologist Max Weber (1968) proposed that in times of historical upheaval, people are more apt to embrace charismatic leaders, seemingly larger-than-life individuals who believe themselves to be, or whom their followers believe to be, singularly equipped, often by virtue of divine ordination, to rid the world of evil. Becker (1973, see also Fromm, 1941; Hoffer, 1951) added that devotion to charismatic leaders minimizes death anxiety by giving their adherents a renewed sense of meaning and purpose.

Consistent with an existential account of the allure of charismatic leaders, Cohen, Solomon, Maxfield, Pyszczynski, and Greenberg (2004) found that mortality salience (MS) increased support for a charismatic candidate in a hypothetical gubernatorial election. Then in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed, after he declared that the U.S. would rid the world of the evildoers and that he believed God had chosen him to lead the country during that perilous time. To show that support for President Bush was a reflection of existential anxieties, Landau et al. (2004) demonstrated that while participants favored John Kerry over George W. Bush in a control condition, support for Bush and his policies increased while support for Kerry decreased in response to MS. Also, in a study conducted a few weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Cohen, Ogilvie, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski (2005) found that, in a control condition, participants reported intending to vote for Kerry by a 4:1 margin; however, in response to MS, participants reported intending to vote for Bush by a more than 2:1 margin. Similarly, in 2016, after Donald Trump declared that only he was capable of “Making America Great Again” and keeping Americans safe from Muslims, immigrants, and terrorists threatening to erode the American way of life, Cohen, Solomon, and Kaplin (2017) found that while participants rated Hillary Clinton more favorably than Donald Trump in a control condition, support for Trump increased in response to MS, while support for Clinton was unaffected.

Existential anxieties aroused in times of historical uncertainty also engender support for, and engagement in, acts of religious and political extremism; this support and engagement occurs in order to assuage feelings of humiliation, and avenge past or present (genuine or perceived) threats to cherished cultural beliefs and values (Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2003). Consistent with this view, Pyszczynski et al. (2006) found that in response to MS, Iranian university students reported greater support for suicide bombing as a response to Western imperialism, and greater willingness to become a suicide bomber themselves. In a second study, politically conservative American participants were, in response to MS, more supportive of using nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons against countries who pose no direct threat to the United States. More recently, Webber et al. (2018) found that political extremists’ (imprisoned in the Philippines and Sri Lanka) self-reported levels of shame, humiliation, and a sense that others “are laughing at them” was positively correlated with support for Islamic extremism (e.g., agreement with the statements such as “Suicide bombers will be rewarded for their deed by God,” “Killing is justified when it is an act of revenge,” “Fighting is the only way to conduct Jihad”); and that liberal and conservative American participants endorsed more extreme political beliefs (e.g., “Control of all corporations should be transferred to the government” for liberals; “All undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S. should be immediately deported to their home countries” for conservatives), after writing about a time when they had felt humiliated and ashamed.

Psychological Disorders as Terror Mismanagement

From a terror management theory (TMT) perspective, psychological disorders occur when individuals, by virtue of genetic predisposition, previous experiences, and present circumstances (or some combination thereof), are unable to manage existential anxieties by deriving a sense of meaning and value from their cultural worldviews (Yalom, 1980; see also Iverach, Menzies, & Menzies, 2014).

In studies of the effect of death reminders on symptoms of anxiety disorders, Strachan et al. (2007) found that in response to MS: participants who met specific criteria for spider phobia showed increased anxious responding to spider-related stimuli; participants who scored high on a compulsive handwashing scale spent more time washing their hands; and that participants who scored high on a measure of social anxiety spent more time by themselves in order to avoid social interaction.

Additionally, Kosloff et al. (2006) demonstrated that MS increased self-reported psychological dissociation and that this effect was mediated by heightened anxiety sensitivity (i.e., being anxious about becoming anxious). Based on this finding, and in light of the connection between psychological dissociation in response to trauma and the subsequent development of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD; Ozer, Best, Lipsey, & Weiss, 2003), Pyszczynski and Kesebir (2011) developed Anxiety Buffer Disruption Theory (ABDT) to delineate the processes through which people who develop PTSD respond to trauma. According to ABDT, extreme stress entirely obliterates some individuals’ belief in their cultural worldviews and thus renders it impossible for those individuals to derive meaning and self-esteem from them. The disruption of these anxiety-buffering mechanisms in turn leads to the major symptoms of PTSD: re-experiencing, hyper-arousal, and avoidance.

In an empirical test of ABTD, Abdollahi, Pyszczynski, Maxfield, and Luszczynska (2011) conducted a study of residents of Zarand, Iran, following a devastating earthquake on February 22, 2005, in which over 1,500 people had perished and almost 7,000 had had to evacuate their homes. Shortly after the earthquake, participants completed a measure of psychological dissociation. Then in a subsequent session, after a reminder of their mortality (MS) or of being in pain, participants completed a worldview defense measure assessing their attitudes toward foreign aid by Western countries. Results indicated that survivors who reported low levels of dissociation in the aftermath of the earthquake responded by denigrating foreign aid by Western countries, and they did not report high levels of anxiety. However, the survivors who had high levels of dissociation after the earthquake did not express negativity toward foreigners in response to MS, although they reported high levels of anxiety. Presumably, the cultural worldviews of the dissociated survivors had been psychologically eradicated, resulting in anxiety in response to the death reminder rather than worldview defense (consistent with this notion, Routledge & Juhl [2010] found that only participants who perceived that life lacked meaning responded to MS with heightened death anxiety). Moreover, two years later, the highly dissociated participants were more likely to have developed PTSD than those who had low levels of dissociation.

To the extent that psychological disorders result from, or are aggravated by, a lack or loss of existential meaning, then bolstering meaning, directly or indirectly, should produce palliative effects with potential clinical significance. For example, Simon, Greenberg, Harmon-Jones, Solomon, and Pyszczynski (1996) found that mildly depressed American participants engaged in more vigorous worldview defense (specifically, more favorable reactions to a pro-U.S. target and unfavorable reactions to an anti-U.S. target) in response to MS. Simon et al. (1996) argued that because depression is associated with a tenuous sense of meaning, and assuming that mildly depressed individuals may have doubts about their cultural worldviews without abandoning them entirely, that stronger worldview defense serves to enhance existential meaning in response to intimations of mortality. This explanation was subsequently corroborated in a study demonstrating that mildly depressed participants who, following a MS induction, were given an opportunity to defend their cultural worldview, reported greater meaning in life (Simon, Arndt, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1998).

Meaning Centered Group Psychotherapy (MCGP; Greenstein & Breitbart, 2000) was developed to “address the loss of spiritual well-being or sense of meaning in life and the existential distress that often arise in patients with advanced cancer” (Breitbart et al., 2015, p. 749). The treatment explores different sources of meaning and significance (e.g., historical legacy; family legacy; accepting life’s limitations; nature, art, and humor as sources of meaning; hopes for the future) and the impact of having cancer on one’s sense of meaning and identity. To determine the effectiveness of MCGP, Breitbart et al. (2015) randomly assigned patients with advanced (stage III or IV) solid-tumor cancers to either MCGP or a supportive group psychotherapy focused on encouraging patients to share concerns about their diagnosis and treatment, difficulties coping with cancer, and their experiences and emotions surrounding those experiences. MCGP produced significant improvements (over time and relative to supportive group psychotherapy) in spiritual well-being and a sense of meaning, accompanied by a decrease both in anxiety and in the desire for death, and treatment gains were more pronounced after two months.

Criticisms of Terror Management Theory

Two issues of Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 8(1), 1997, and Vol. 17(4), 2006, were devoted exclusively to theoretical and empirical critiques of TMT, and include responses by the originators of the theory.

Terror Management Theory Is Inconsistent With Evolutionary Theory

Some evolutionary theorists have argued that terror management theory (TMT) is inherently flawed (see, e.g., Buss, 1997; Kirkpatrick & Navarrete, 2006; Navarrete & Fessler, 2005) because: (a) the theory was originally framed in terms of Darwin’s conception of evolution, which was based on a now-outmoded assumption of an individual self-preservation instinct rather than the more contemporary “gene’s eye” view of evolution (Dawkins, 1976); (b) death anxiety cannot affect human evolution because evolutionary adaptations are driven by external (i.e., environmental) selection pressures resulting in domain-specific responses, whereas death anxiety is an internal and general psychological state; and (c) death anxiety is adaptive, so even if evolutionary adaptations can result from internal selection pressures, evolutionary mechanisms to assuage death anxiety would be maladaptive and ultimately selected against.

In response to these concerns, TMT theorists (e.g., Landau, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Greenberg, 2007; Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2015) note that the distinction between Darwin’s view of evolution and the more contemporary “gene’s-eye” view of evolution is immaterial for TMT purposes: specifically, “Some have argued (e.g., Dawkins, 1976) that the need for self-preservation at the individual level is ultimately in the service of preserving our genes rather than ourselves per se. We have no quarrel with this assertion, and accepting it would not significantly alter our conceptual analysis” (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991, p. 95). Moreover, evolutionary adaptations can result from internal selection pressures (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992) and are not limited to domain-specific responses (Mithen, 1996). Finally, it is important to distinguish between death anxiety engendered by impending mortal danger (e.g., facing a hurricane, or enemy fire), and potential anxiety about death in the absence of such dangers (e.g., a participant in a TMT study in a psychology lab responding to mortality salience [MS] induction) that could undermine effective instrumental behavior and render consciousness problematic as a viable evolutionary adaptation; see Varki and Brower (2013) and Solomon (2017) for evolutionary accounts of the role of death denial in the evolution of consciousness and culture.

Death Is Not a Unique Threat

Some social psychologists have argued that TMT is misguided in its insistence that the awareness of death poses a unique psychological threat to human beings, and propose instead that humans are primarily motivated to reduce uncertainty (van den Bos, 2001), maintain meaning (Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006), or maximize a sense of control (Fritsche, Jonas, & Fankhänel, 2008). From these perspectives, death is psychologically problematic to the extent that it increases uncertainty, undermines meaning, or diminishes control, respectively. Empirical support for these claims is provided by experiments demonstrating that making uncertainty salient, or undermining meaning or control, produces the same cultural-worldview-defensive responses as an MS induction without increasing the accessibility of implicit death thoughts (DTA, whose presence is, according to TMT, a necessary and sufficient condition for initiating distal defenses).

In response to these criticisms, TMT theorists (Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2015) argue that efforts to reduce concerns about death to secondary manifestations of a broader motivation to maximize certainty, meaning, and/or control are empirically, theoretically, and historically wanting.

Empirically, studies purporting to show that uncertainty, meaning threat, or lack of control produce the same effects as MS inductions without increasing DTA employed procedural deviations from TMT paradigms (e.g., the timing of the administration of the DTA measure or minor variations in the measure itself). For example, Webber, Zhang, Schimel, and Blatter (2016) found a threat to meaning produced increased DTA (comparable to an MS induction) in a study that used precisely the same procedure and measures as the original TMT studies. From a TMT perspective, then, certain types of uncertainty, threats to meaning, and loss of control produce effects similar to those that occur in response to MS because those inductions also elicit non-conscious intimations of mortality. Furthermore, far more studies have shown divergent effects of MS and threats to certainty and control than have found similar ones (Greenberg, Vail, & Pyszczynski, 2014).

Theoretically, Pyszczynski et al. (2015) argue that the awareness of mortality is a uniquely potent psychological threat because death is the only inevitable future event, it is contrary to many of our biological predispositions (such as to keep breathing), and it threatens to undermine all of our desires, whether for pleasure, meaning, belonging, control, self-integrity, or successful offspring, and so forth. Greenberg et al. (2014) also argue that the proponents of alternatives to TMT do not offer compelling accounts of the function of cultural worldviews and self-esteem. In addition, people seek uncertainty in many contexts: gambling, dating, or trying new restaurants and activities. From the TMT perspective, people want to be certain that life is meaningful and that they are of value. They want outcomes that reduce their anxieties and enhance their pleasure. Sometimes certainty and control serve those outcomes, sometimes they do not; for example, Arndt and Solomon (2003) predicted and found that in response to mortality salience, the desire for personal control increased for participants low in neuroticism, but decreased for participants high in neuroticism. People do not want certainty or control for their own sake. A person would not want to be certain that life were meaningless or that they were worthless, or that the lump on their body were cancerous. Similarly, passengers do not want to control the airplane they are on; they want the pilot to guide their airplane so that they do not die, and to ensure that they arrive at the desired destination. Sometimes being in control serves our desired outcomes; sometimes letting others have control is preferable. With regard to meaning, TMT offers an explanation for why people need to believe life is meaningful. No other theory does so.

Moreover, these theoretical alternatives cannot provide coherent or convincing explanations for a host of empirical findings based on hypotheses derived from TMT. For example, Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, McCoy, Greenberg, and Solomon (1999) predicted and found that in response to MS, participants would find the physical aspects of sex less appealing, and that thinking about the physical aspects of sex would increase DTA; this study was based on Becker’s (1973) argument that the physical aspects of sex remind people (implicitly or explicitly) of their similarity to animals, and that this in turn reminds them of their mortality. It is unclear how this finding could be explained in terms of a lack of certainty, meaning, or control. Additionally, proponents of alternatives to TMT argue that MS effects are not dependent on increased DTA; however, they have not provided any explanation of the cognitive underpinnings of these effects, nor can they explain why threats to terror-management resources increase DTA.

Finally, although the historical record is replete with examples of human beings going to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of immortality—Gilgamesh; those who built the Pyramids and the terracotta warriors; alchemists, who concocted elixirs to extend life in perpetuity, or searched for the Fountain of Youth—there do not seem to have been comparable efforts to develop elixirs to enhance certainty or to locate the Fountain of Meaning or Control.

Conclusions

There is now a substantial body of research whose results are in accord with the central tenets of terror management theory (TMT): that is, that human beings are fundamentally meaning-making creatures in pursuit of self-esteem in the service of death transcendence. Moreover, TMT spawned the development of experimental existential psychology (or XXP; Greenberg, Koole, & Pyszczynski, 2004) as a vibrant sub-discipline of psychological science.

Further Reading

Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology: Vol. 29 (pp. 61–139). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.Find this resource:

May, R. (1991). Cry for myth. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.Find this resource:

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The worm at the core: On the role of death in life. New York, NY: Random House.Find this resource:

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