All mammals, including humans, experience terror when faced with the threat of death. Upon seeing a predator, an animal in the wild enters a state of fight, flight, or freezing. Similarly, if my car begins to spin out of control or if I wake up to discover a suspicious lump, I will have this same response. But unlike other mammals, humans are capable of experiencing this terror even when death is not imminent. I can be young and healthy, but simply contemplating my eventual demise can be enough to fill me with terror (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2015, location 208).
This can create significant problems. Having this fight-flight-freeze response in the face of an imminent threat is adaptive, but having it in the absence of such a threat can be debilitating, preventing one from carrying out the activities required for healthy, productive living. According to terror management theory (TMT), humans learned to solve this problem by creating cultural worldviews. A cultural worldview is a belief system which (a) affirms that existence has order and meaning, (b) prescribes standards for right behavior, and (c) confers value and death transcendence to those who meet these standards. By believing in a cultural worldview and attaining the self-esteem that comes from meeting its standards, we're able to escape the terror that comes from death awareness (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2004, p. 20).
Unfortunately, cultural worldviews are incapable of perfectly protecting us from this terror. For the fact remains that worldviews are human inventions, and although certain worldviews might in fact be true, there's no way to verify this. If anything, reality gives people reason to question their worldviews, for life can be cruel and unfair, seeming to contradict the rosy narratives which worldviews affirm. The surest way to strengthen a worldview is to surround oneself with like-minded people. For worldviews are maintained through consensual validation, meaning that confidence in one's worldview is bolstered by being around people who share that worldview and weakened by being around people who oppose that worldview.
In order to test the validity of TMT, researchers devised two empirically verifiable hypotheses: the morality salience hypothesis and the anxiety-buffer hypothesis.
Mortality Salience Hypothesis
The mortality salience hypothesis states that, if in fact cultural worldviews serve the purpose of mitigating death anxiety, then reminding people of their mortality (mortality salience) will cause them to attempt to bolster those worldviews (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2004, p. 20). Since worldviews are maintained through consensual validation, it further follows that making mortality salient will cause people to react more positively to those who share their worldviews and more negatively to people who oppose their worldviews.
Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon (1989) were the first ones to test this hypothesis. In their first experiment, they presented municipal court judges with information about a prostitute and asked what they would set her bond at. Half of the judges were simply given information about the case and asked to make their decision, while the other half were first asked to briefly write what would happen to their bodies upon death and what emotions were elicited when they thought about death. The researchers hypothesized that the judges asked to write about their own mortality would have a more negative reaction to the prostitute since her lifestyle flouts the worldview of the judges, thus raising the possibility that their worldview "may not be universally valid." And indeed these judges came down much more harshly on the prostitute, imposing an average bond of $455, compared to $50 for the first group (p. 682).
In another experiment, Rosenblatt et al. (1989) asked a group of college students to recommend a reward for a woman who helped the police catch a criminal. Just as in the first experiment, half of the participants were simply given information about the case, while the other half were first asked to write about their own mortality. Just as predicted, the students in the mortality salient group showed a greater eagerness to reward the woman, recommending an average reward of $3,476, compared to $1,112 for the control group (p. 684).
The following year, Greenberg et al. (1990) tested whether "similar effects could be shown for reactions to targets who bolster or threaten the cultural worldview in other ways" (p. 309). These researchers took a group of Christian college students and asked half of them to briefly write about their own mortality. All of the students were then asked to evaluate two questionnaires, one purportedly filled out by a Christian and the other by a Jew. The students who hadn’t been reminded of death evaluated the Christian and Jewish writers equally, while those who had been reminded of death evaluated the Christian writer more positively and the Jewish writer more negatively (pp. 310-313).
In a second experiment, Greenberg et al. (1990) asked a group of college students to read three short writings, one espousing positive views of the United States, one espousing negative views, and a third espousing mixed views. The students whose mortality had not been made salient rated all of the writers fairly equally, while those in the mortality salience group held favorable views of the pro-American writer and negative views of the anti-American writer.
These initial studies have been corroborated by hundreds of subsequent studies, one of which even showed that mortality salience increases physical aggression against one's political opponents. These studies have shown that the the mortality salience hypothesis holds up in different cultures, including indigenous cultures (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2004, p. 22). These studies have also shown that these mortality salience effects can be produced by other means -- e.g., showing participants footage of gory automobile accidents, interviewing them near funeral homes, and subliminal priming -- and that "reminders of other negative events, such as social rejection, failing an exam, intense pain, or losing a limb in a car accident," have not been shown to "produce the same effects as being reminded of one's mortality" (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2015, location 328).
The anxiety-buffer hypothesis states that if self-esteem protects us against death anxiety, then bolstering self-esteem will mitigate death anxiety when mortality is made salient (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2004, p. 20). Greenberg et al. (1992) gave participants a psychological profile purportedly based on their answers to a questionnaire. Some participants were given neutral evaluation reports while others were given positive reports. After receiving these results, half of the participants watched a clip from the documentary Faces of Death, while the others watched a clip of peaceful nature scenes. Participants then completed questionnaires measuring self-esteem and anxiety. Just as expected, those who received positive evaluations reported higher self-esteem than those who received neutral evaluations, and those who received neutral evaluations reported more anxiety if they watched Faces of Death than if they watched the nature clip. But everyone who had their self-esteem boosted reported equally low levels of anxiety, whether they watched Faces of Death or the nature clip (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2015, locations 768-794).
In a second experiment, Greenberg et al. (1992) had participants take what they believed to be an intelligence test. Some participants received no feedback on the test, while others were told that they did especially well on the test. Half of the participants were then hooked up to a machine and told that they would receive a series of painful electric shocks, while the others were asked to watch some colored lights. Participants who received no feedback on the test were more likely than those asked to watched the colored lights to perspire when anticipating the electrical shocks, a physiological indication of anxiety. But those who had their self-esteem bolstered were no more likely to perspire when expecting to be shocked than were those who watched the colored lights (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2015, locations 794-847).
Subsequent research has shown that not only does bolstering self-esteem mitigate death anxiety when mortality is made salient but also that bolstering self-esteem reduces the worldview defense which occurs after mortality is made salient. Like Greenberg et al. (1992), Harmon-Jones et al. (1997) gave a group of students a psychological profile, some of the profiles containing neutral evaluations and some containing positive evaluations. Harmon-Jones et al. (1997) then asked some students to write about their own mortality and others to write about television. Students were then asked to read and evaluate a pro-American essay and an anti-American essay. Just as predicted, those students who did not receive a self-esteem boost and whose mortality was made salient rated the pro-American writer more favorably than the anti-American writer, while students who received a self-esteem boost and whose mortality was made salient rated both writers equally (pp. 26-27).
Harmon-Jones et al. (1997) conducted a second experiment, this one replicating the conditions of the first experiment with one difference: instead of receiving a temporary self-esteem boost, students were categorized based on their dispositional self-esteem (as indicated by their scores on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale). Again, just as predicted, those students with moderate self-esteem scores in the mortality salient condition rated the pro-American writer more favorably than the anti-American writer, while those students with high self-esteem scores in the mortality salient condition rated both writers equally (pp. 28-30).
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 Death transcendence can be literal or symbolic. Literal death transcendence implies the existence of souls which will endure after one's bodily death. Symbolic death transcendence implies that something one does will endure after they themselves die. Examples of symbolic death transcendence include having children, achieving fame, contributing to a cause, being part of a group.
 Although the first TMT studies showed that death reminders cause people to attempt to bolster their worldviews, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Simon, & Breus (1994) found that this effect could be weakened by making some seemingly minor changes. In one experiment, Greenberg et al. (1994) again asked participants to evaluate pro-American and anti-American writers, but this time that had those in the mortality salient group to think about death longer and more deeply. This time, participants in the mortality salient group were less likely than those in the Greenberg et al. (1990) study to view the pro-American writer favorably and the anti-American writer unfavorably. In another experiment, Greenberg et al. (1994) had some participants in the mortality salient group take a break before evaluating the writers while having others evaluate the writers immediately after writing about death. Those who read the essays after a short break viewed the pro-American writer favorably and the anti-American writer unfavorably, while those asked to rate the essays immediately after the death reminder rated the writers equally.
Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski (2015) write that based on these and additional studies, researchers concluded that people use two different psychological defenses in response to thoughts of death (location 2914). Proximal defenses are activated when thoughts of death are in our conscious awareness, while distal defenses are activated when thoughts of death have been relegated "to the fringes of our consciousness" (location 2927).
Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon (1999) define proximal defenses as "relatively rational, threat-focused cognitive maneuvers that push these thoughts out of consciousness." Proximal defenses might accomplish this through distraction -- e.g., "after passing a gruesome accident scene, a person might turn up the radio" -- or by using "various rationalizing cognitive strategies to deny one's current vulnerability." For example, "people may remind themselves that they get a lot of exercise, don't smoke, have relatively low levels of serum cholesterol, and so on. If thoughts of this nature are implausible because of clear evidence to the contrary (i.e., if people are aware that they do indeed possess risk factors of these sorts), they may use other cognitive strategies, such as denying the extent of risk that such behaviors or characteristics entail, focusing their attention on whatever evidence might be available to support a long life expectancy, or promising themselves to do what they can in the future to increase their life expectancy (e.g., I'm going on a diet next week, quitting smoking, and starting an exercise program)." Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon (1999) define distal defenses as defenses which "address the problem of death in a more indirect symbolic manner by providing a sense that one is a valuable contributor to a meaningful, eternal universe. Rather than pushing the problem of death out of consciousness or rationalizing it away into the distant future, distal defenses provide security by making one's life seem meaningful, valuable, and enduring."
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Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308-318.
Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Simon, L., & Breus, M. (1994). Role of consciousness and accessibility of death-related thoughts in mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(4), 627.
Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 29, 61-139.
Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., Rosenblatt, A., Burling, J., Lyon, D., ... & Pinel, E. (1992). Why do people need self-esteem? Converging evidence that self-esteem serves an anxiety-buffering function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(6), 913.
Harmon-Jones, E., Simon, L., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & McGregor, H. (1997). Terror management theory and self-esteem: Evidence that increased self-esteem reduced mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(1), 24.
Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (1999). A dual-process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: an extension of terror management theory. Psychological Review, 106(4), 835.
Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 681.
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The Worm at the core: On the role of death in life [Kindle version].
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2004). The cultural animal: Twenty years of terror management theory and research. In J. Greenberg, S. Koole, & T. Pyszczynski (Eds.), Handbook of experimental existential psychology (pp. 13-34). New York: The Guilford Press.