On October 31st, the Mental Health Working Group presented a teach-in on an interesting death-themed topic. Presented by acting facilitator Jordan, the teach-in centered on a theory of social and evolutionary psychology called Terror Management Theory, or TMT.
TMT is based on the idea that human animals are uniquely knowledgeable about their own inevitable death, and that a host of behaviors and ideas seemingly unrelated to death – self-esteem, national or other group pride, capital accumulation, sexual activities – are in fact symbolic defenses against the existential dread or “terror” of our impending non-existence.
TMT was originally inspired by the ideas and work of an anthropologist, not a psychologist. According to Wikipedia, the three psychologists who founded TMT based its premises on “Ernest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction The Denial of Death, in which Becker argues most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death … On large scales, societies build symbols: laws, religious meaning systems, cultures, and belief systems to explain the significance of life, define what makes certain characteristics, skills, and talents extraordinary, reward others whom they find exemplify certain attributes, and punish or kill others who do not adhere to their cultural worldview. Adherence to these created ‘symbols’ aids in relieving stresses associated with the reality of mortality. On an individual level, self-esteem provides a buffer against death-related anxiety.”
The three psychologists considered founders of TMT, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon, originally proposed the theory in 1986, kicking off a huge amount of research by themselves and others. TMT has developed its own vocabulary, as influential psychological theories often do. Terms to understand include Mortality Salience (MS), which is being reminded of your mortality, or having the death anxiety move from the unconscious to the conscious mind. Also Death Thought Accessibility (DTA), which is how easily you can be reminded of death, by, for example, a researcher threatening your self-esteem, if high self-esteem is one of your defenses against existential terror.
And in the mid-2000s psychologists developed the Terror Management Health Model (TMHM) which explores the role that death plays on one’s health and behavior. Researchers J. L. Goldenberg and J. Arndt in 2008 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.
TMT has generated empirical research (currently more than 500 studies) examining a host of other forms of human social behavior, including aggression, stereotyping, needs for structure and meaning, depression and psychopathology, political preferences, creativity, sexuality, romantic and interpersonal attachment, self-awareness, unconscious cognition, martyrdom, religion, group identification, disgust, human-nature relations, physical health, risk taking, and legal judgments.
In 2015, Greenberg, Pyszczynski and Solomon published The Worm at the Core, which reviews this vast body of research supporting Becker’s central claim that the fear of death is “the mainspring of human activity.”
The Mental Health Working Group’s teach-in considered a study relating something called “trait mindfulness” (which is simply a measure of how much mindfulness as a personality trait a person has – it could be innate, or created through a mindfulness practice) correlates negatively to the need to cling to what are called “distal” defenses, such as body self-esteem, racial or other group preferences, or strict espousal of societal norms. Since such distal defenses, in their most extreme forms, can also be called fascism, racism, and authoritarianism respectively, the group considered whether possibly developing a trait of mindfulness could “protect” a person from developing such harmful beliefs, by providing a more healthy response to mortality salience.
Our introduction to TMT was enhanced by, among other things, a really moving video presentation from Sheldon Solomon, one of the original proponents of the theory, discussing “The Psychological Costs of Being American.” See it here. You also may enjoy reading The Worm at the Core.