Facing Your Mortality
A Brief Look at Terror Management Theory
Do you remember the first time that you realized you will die? This often results in what is known as “death anxiety”, as it did with me. This is part of a mental disorder called thanatophobia, which is not to be confused with necrophobia, a specific fear of the dead or dying. The latter is the fear of the mortality of others, whereas the former concerns one’s own demise.
This feeling of hopeless despair toward death has been part of the human condition for at least 5,000 generations, back when people started burying the dead. The practice is at least 130,000 years old. Who knows? Death anxiety could trace back much further than that.
It might date back a million years or more, to the time of Homo erectus. There’s just no way to know for sure. The point is that no matter when it happened, somewhere along the line, people began to face their own mortality. This was a major turning point in the epic prehistory of humanity, leading to the search for immortality.
In line with this, in 1973, a cultural anthropologist named Ernest Becker asserted in his book The Denial of Death that humans are the only animals capable of grasping the inevitability of death. This was then expounded on by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon who published their book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life in 2015.
It describes what they call “terror management theory”, or TMT for short. They propose that a basic psychological conflict results from having a self-preservation instinct while realizing that death is inevitable and to some extent unpredictable.
This produces dread, and that terror is then managed by embracing cultural beliefs, or symbolic systems that act to counter physical reality with more durable forms of meaning and value. If they are right then society is just the result of a futile effort to forestall the inevitability of our own mortality. This is undoubtedly attributing too much significance to the role of death in life, but the idea does have a lot of merits.
Of course, the most obvious examples of cultural values that assuage death anxiety are those that offer literal immortality in the form of the afterlife. Tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestors were storytellers first and foremost. They talked to each other about everything that happened to them. This was a group event done around the fire, with every meal.
More importantly, they took everything seriously. Back then, everything was a matter of life and death. This meant that along with analyzing their dream content, they also took note of things like the occurrence of past life memories and near-death experiences (NDEs).
This line of inquiry eventually led to the formation of specific conceptions of the afterlife, giving rise to various different religious beliefs, beginning with ancestor worship. This is when death anxiety really began to impact the lives of people on a daily basis. So, along with having an erotic dimension to our being, we developed a thanatonic dimension as well.
In other words, TMT posits that religion was created as a means for humans to cope with their own mortality. Supporting this, arguments in favor of life after death, and simply being religious, reduce the effects of mortality salience on worldview defense. Thoughts of death have also been found to increase faith. Moreover, at an implicit, subconscious level, this is even the case for atheists.
Regardless, this eventually led to a sharp divide among ancient intellectuals, apparently beginning in ancient Greece. In 399 BCE, Socrates was sentenced to death for refusing to acknowledge the official deities of Athens and radicalizing youth. He didn’t think we could know if there’s an afterlife or not, but he thought there were really only two possibilities.
More to the point, as far as he was concerned, neither of them was anything to be afraid of. Socrates argued that death is either a kind of dreamless sleep of the immortal soul or passage to another life.
Either way, Socrates recommended spending your life looking after your mind, thereby cultivating that part of you that you’ll get to keep forever. In sharp contrast to this line of reasoning was the materialist view of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epicurus.
He lived about a century after Socrates, and he rejected belief in an afterlife altogether. Epicurus purported that we’re just our bodies, and nothing more. Death, he claimed, is just the cessation of sensation. Moreover, Epicurus argued that fearing nonexistence is not only stupid, but it gets in the way of enjoying life.
This laid the foundation for the materialist approach to the mind, thus setting the stage for psychologists like Sheldon Solomon. However, it’s important to understand that Solomon is not an evolutionary psychologist. Charles Darwin and his successors have argued that fear is an adaptive response in individuals that comes about as a result of natural selection.
Without these adaptations, human beings would have never been able to avoid harmful situations. Therefore, it is unlikely that people would have psychological ways of slowing down anxiety. In response, terror management theorists argue that this critique is mixing up fear related to immediate danger with anxiety related to thoughts of threats that will or may occur eventually.
Thus, Solomon’s primary assertion is that the terror of absolute annihilation creates such profound anxiety in people that they spend their lives attempting to make sense of it. From his point of view, fear of death subconsciously determines everything we do. To make matters worse, thanatophobia has the potential to be exacerbated by death-recent thought-content, which might be classified within a clinical setting as morbid, which for classification pre-necessitates a degree of anxiety that is persistent and interferes with everyday functioning.
To make matters worse, death anxiety can cause extreme timidness with a person’s attitude towards discussing anything to do with dying. This is all the more reason that people need to come to terms with their own finite existence.
The bottom line is that the terror management health model (TMHM) suggests that mortality awareness and self-esteem are important factors in individuals’ decision-making and behaviors relating to their well-being. TMHM explores how people will engage in behaviors, whether positive or negative, even with the heightened awareness of mortality, in the attempt to conform to society’s expectations and improve their self-esteem.
In 2008, Goldenberg and Arndt stated that the TMHM proposes the idea that death, despite its threatening nature, is, in fact, instrumental and purposeful in the conditioning of one’s behavior towards the direction of a longer life. In line with this, in 2009, Abel and Kruger suggested that the stress caused by increased awareness of mortality when celebrating one’s birthday might explain the “birthday effect”, where mortality rates seem to spike around these days.
So, then, what are we to do?
Well, simply put, on a social level, religion provides a buffer against death-related anxiety. Whereas, on an individual level, self-esteem does the trick. So, ultimately, spirituality is at the core of our thanatonic dilemma.
Whether you only believe in the mortal body like Epicurus, or also in the immortal soul like Socrates, the fact is that you will eventually die. Thus, you need to find a way to live with the knowledge that you will die, in one way or another.