DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 3: TERROR MANAGEMENT
Updated: Mar 18
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS-- your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. Today, we will look at an expansive theory on the roots of our anxiety being tied to awareness of our mortality.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH
TERROR MANAGEMENT THEORY
“Sometimes I don't know where
This dirty road is taking me
Sometimes I can't even see the reason why
I guess I keep a-gamblin'
Lots of booze and lots of ramblin'
It's easier than just waitin' around to die”
-Townes Van Zandt
Our consciousness can be quite taxing. While it is our lucidity and cognition that assuredly makes us capable of living at the complex and fulfilling levels that we do as humans, it also serves as a double-edged sword being the source of our fears and anxieties. For every positive joy that we are able to experience thanks to our cognition, we in turn face an ultimate negative reality: we are also aware of our own mortality.
Perhaps to put it most simply, Terror Management Theories (TMT for short) suggest why, from an evolutionary sense, we would want to leave a legacy and develop a unique individual personality. The awareness of an eventual end to life functions as a motivator– both good and bad– which creates the drive to lead a life that we feel will result in being remembered favorably and therefore living “eternally” beyond our biological lifespan.
DEVELOPMENT OF THEORY
The theory was first proposed by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski, and officially describes the phenomenon as a clash between the internal instinct of self-preservation with the constant and eventually inevitable threat of death. Research was initially inspired by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s book entitled The Denial of Death, which highlighted how humans were aware of mortality and that the resulting response was then anxiety and reactionary need to make meaning out of our existence.
The manifestation of this driving force is a world where humans are more susceptible to insecurity, pride, prejudice, anxiety, and similar fear-based reactions, as well as creation of taboos around things that remind us of our animalistic nature. Terror Management Theory is considered a social psychology theory, as it is driven by the conglomerate actions of all individuals together; it is also considered an evolutionary psychology theory for its function as an adaptation to promote self-preservation.
Mortality salience is the term used to describe the awareness of inevitable death. The implications of this viewpoint suggest that the most critical element of human existence is then self-esteem. If positive self-perception acts as the strongest buffer to perpetual raw feelings of fear around death, it is thereby is our largest coping mechanism to this inevitable terror stemming from mortality salience. Those with high self-esteem have shown to have more positive views of their lives, and this seems to reduce death anxiety. Those with low self-esteem have shown more susceptibility to reactionary negative emotions due to cognitive dissonance, and this results in an increase of death anxiety.
TMT posits that this is explained by the need to maintain an individual identity that would be viewed favorably, and the resulting reactions to threatening or otherwise negative situations would upwell consideration of how an individual feels about their life story in result. Thinking about the common sayings of “I could die happy right now”, or the reverse, “I can’t go down like this”, we can’t say that these concepts are too foreign. However, looking at the way that this may shape our perception of waking life may offer more insight into our internal unsettled emotions.
POSITIVE IMPLICATIONS OF TMT
Per the theory, we can essentially thank Terror Management for evolving empathy as a counter to animalistic competition. From this lens, the reason that we seek meaning in life is to create a lasting impact in our time alive that will carry us on eternally after we die– therefore creating a benefit in having as much positive perception as possible from others throughout our lifespan. The fear of death also creates the relief and joy of life– thrilling experiences exist in part due to inherent risk of negative outcomes, and we cannot say in earnest whether we would be able to experience complex positive emotions such as trust, love, and security without the looming threat of mortality creating a need for such relief in the first place.
NEGATIVE IMPLICATIONS OF TMT
As one may expect from a theory centered around something described as “death anxiety”, the function of Terror Management serves better as an explanation for existence of negative emotions while then viewing positive emotions from the reactionary viewpoint. The fear of death manifests across all realms of life, including but not limited to...
At the micro level:
our individual insecurities and biases are formed in reactionary defense to omnipresent threats of dying, and failure to cope with this ongoing anxiety leads to a large influence on how painful our mental distraught is being perceived. TMT suggests our feelings of failure or disappointment may actually arise from the fear that if we were to die at that moment, our legacy would be insufficient to “living on” in societal memory. The inability to cope with looming death also creates large barriers to seeing ourselves in the future, as we are both unsure how long we will live and possess so much ambiguity and anxiety about the present that future thinking becomes inaccessible.
At the mezzo level:
the uncomfortable reaction that arises in discussing topics such as sickness, disability, and death itself are due to the topics being blatant reminders of mortality, as we are quite literally faced with them directly. The taboo around discussing sexuality, bodily functions, extreme human behaviors, and other animalistic realities of life derives from avoidance of seeing ourselves as biological organisms in favor of looking at the sophisticated and developed parts of human development. Take the example of crude humor: there is a societal stigma that bathroom and sexual jokes are considered “low-brow”, while nuanced, complex humor is considered more “sophisticated”. Both comedic approaches can make people laugh at equal levels, but underlying fear of accepting our animalistic realities create a value judgement around which style is considered more ideal and proper.
On a macro level:
Terror Managment’s most drastic and dire proposition may be the macro level effects of death anxiety: societies as a whole will go to great lengths to deny mortality. This is perhaps jarringly prevalent in recent phenomena such as denial of climate change, COVID-19, and other worldwide crises-- the problem is so overwhelming and threatening that denial might be the only accessible coping mechanism. Macro level influences could also fuel racism, sexism, and other prejudices due to need for an in-group, a “right way” in which we can feel comfortable in to distract from looming feelings of death. We also experience peer pressure as a TMT defense, favoring social trends over actual individual decisions due to the concept of “safety in numbers”.
While TMT may not be the brightest light that we view ourselves in, there are still some takeaways that can, at the very least, expand our perceptions on society’s inner workings. When looking at in/out-group differences, we can take this viewpoint and see that prejudice and out-group hatred may be due to an internal anxiety around our own mortality creating the need for reassurance that our “tribe” is correct, and this reframes conflict as defensive rather than assimilatory. Viewing the value of cultural differences as differing adaptations to mortality salience can help combat the natural bias of certain groups being “right” or “wrong”. Diffusion of stereotypes by challenging them and taking context can bring relief to societal perceptions, as it serves as a counter to our anxious assumptions.
An additional implication from the findings relates to how messages can be more effectively communicated on a broad societal level by focusing on what has been suggested to be more effective. To take an example of research done using TMT principles in relation to anti-smoking campaigns, we can see that focus on the social exclusion that may happen due to smoking may be more effective in actual recession than discussing long-term consequences. This is due to the social influences on the individual in the present day having far more impact than a future hypothetical risk would.
CRITIQUES ON THEORY
A handful of psychologists have argued against the theory, countering that the fear of death cannot solely be seen as the single driving factor to life and rather views it as one of countless confounding influences. A great deal of critiques on the topic argue overemphasis on the influence of mortality salience specifically, and counter that results were not based on concrete findings with skepticism that more researcher bias was involved in the study than actual valid data.
Another consideration is the inability to confirm or deny that we are the only species indeed aware of mortality. Certain animals such as elephants and chimpanzees– notably two of the most intelligent species on earth– ritualistically bury their dead, which may infer that we are not the only species aware of our eventual passage. And as with any theory that claims to be “all-encompassing”, the generalization and blanket application of this theory to all points of life is certainly lacking accommodations to the nuance of life and psychology.
So perhaps the best way to look at Terror Management Theory is not as an "end all, be all" explanation, but rather as a key ingredient in the complex recipe of life. TMT can be used to reframe viewing humans as savage beasts who strive to hunt, conquer and dominate one another into a suggestion that we are more akin to birds flying away from any potential threat, taking extreme caution and avoidance even in innocuous situations. The theory also offers a relatively concrete way to better understand where our taboos and biases may be stemming from, and gives us a further medium by which to understand, accept, and reframe these perceptions.
While we may not be able to escape the reality of mortality salience, we may also be able to enjoy our lives to the fullest due to it.
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
SBIRT & MOTIVATIONAL INTERVIEWING
Next month, we look at a new method of talking about inevitably awkward and potentially dangerous topics around substance use more casually through SBIRT (screen, brief intervention, refer to treatment). Nick will also further explain motivational interviewing, a core facet of both SBIRT and his own personal therapeutic methodology.
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