Understanding Terror Management Theory

Understanding Terror Management Theory


The one who has come to life has to go one day, it is the truth of life. Death is inevitable. And this truth sometimes causes a kind of existential anxiety in people. These thoughts of impending doom might be more frequent than we might think. How we manage these thoughts is what is explained by the terror management theory. Terror management theory (TMT) suggests that people are afraid and threatened by their death and hence adopt worldviews that preserve their self-esteem, worthiness, and sustainability. People mostly are so scared of living an insignificant life rather than death itself and hence in a way to address it, they form close relationships within their cultural group to convince themselves of their sustainability. 

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Terror management theory was inspired by an earlier work of anthropologist Ernest Becker called “the denial of death“. The book argues that most human actions are motivated by a desire to avoid or ignore death. Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Psyzczynski developed the theory theory in their book ‘The Worm at the Core’. Most psychologists consider TMT to be an evolutionary trait. Humans evolved to be aware of potential threats to protect their lives and preserve their gene pool. 

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The intense existential anxiety that comes with that knowledge is an unintended consequence of this evolutionary advantage. Talking about the terror of impending doom, we have witnessed and experienced death anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Defences used to manage TMT

Death related thoughts as mentioned generate anxiety among people. Therefore, people use certain defences depending upon whether the thoughts are conscious or unconscious. If the thoughts are conscious people use proximal defenses like suppression and rationalization as a way to cope with anxiety. And if the thoughts are unconscious dismal terror management defences are used which include increasing self-esteem and holding strong cultural and worldviews. 

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In other words, terror management theory holds that we create culture and aspects of our lives that we think will outlive us because of the awareness of the inherently terrifying thought of death. According to research, proximal defences emerge quickly after death reminders, while distal defences emerge only after a delay and distraction; however, when death reminders are presented subliminally, bypassing conscious attention, distal defences emerge immediately.

According to TMT, religion was created to help humans cope with their mortality. This is supported by arguments for life after death and simply being religious, which reduce the effects of mortality prominence on a perspective defence. Death-related thoughts have also been linked to stronger religious beliefs. Even those who claim to be nonreligious experience this on an implicitly, subconscious level.

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TMT And Self Esteem

Self-esteem is central to TMT and an essential component of its core paradigms. TMT aims to understand the causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem. It is strongly influenced by Ernest Becker’s theories of culture and self-esteem. it tries to explain not only the concept of self-esteem but also why we need it.

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One possible explanation is that self-esteem is used to cope with anxiety. It assists people in overcoming their fear and accepting that humans are simply animals attempting to manage their surroundings. TMT defines self-esteem as a sense of personal worth generated by beliefs in the validity of one’s cultural worldview. Research has shown that people with higher self-esteem, particularly in terms of their behaviour, have a more positive outlook on life. Death cognition in the form of anti-smoking warnings was particularly ineffective for smokers, instead increasing their already positive attitudes toward the behaviour.

People’s positive viewpoints toward smoking after mortality were highlighted indicating that they use optimism as a defense against anxiety. Continuing to hold certain beliefs despite being shown to be flawed, causes cognitive dissonance between current information and past behavior, which can be alleviated by simply rejecting new information.

As a result, anxiety buffers like self-esteem help people deal with their fears more effectively. Death awareness could lead to negative reinforcement, leading people to engage in riskier behaviours (in this case, smoking), because acknowledging the new information could result in a decrease in self-esteem, higher vulnerability as well as awareness of mortality.

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Experimental Evidence supporting TMT

We learnt that self-esteem serves as an anxiety buffer and hence to prove it two studies were conducted by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Tom Psyzczynski and other psychologists. In Study 1, it was hypothesized that increasing self-esteem would lessen the need to deny vulnerability to premature death. 

In support of this hypothesis, positive personality feedback removed subjects’ tendency to bias emotionality reports to deny vulnerability to a short life expectancy–except when mortality became salient to the subjects. Study 2 conceptually replicated this effect by showing that subjects with low self-worth characteristics affected their feelings reports to deny vulnerability to a short duration of life, whereas subjects with high trait self-esteem did not exhibit such bias. As a result, there is compelling evidence that self-esteem reduces vulnerability-defying defensive distortions.

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Now, another evidence in support of TMT was a group of studies conducted to investigate the hypothesis that reminding people of their mortality increases attraction to those who consensually validate their beliefs while decreasing attraction to those who threaten their beliefs. In Study 1, subjects with a Christian religious background were asked to form opinions about Christian and Jewish target people. Before doing so, mortality was made a priority for half of the subjects.

According to predictions, the prominence of mortality resulted in more positive evaluations of the in-group member (the Christian) and more negative evaluations of the out-group member (the Jew). In Study 2, the prominence of mortality resulted in particularly negative assessments of an attitudinal dissimilar other, but only among subjects who displayed significant authority. In Study 3, mortality salience resulted in particularly positive responses to someone who promptly acknowledged subjects’ cultural worldviews, as well as particularly negative reactions to someone who criticized them.

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Terror management theory has been controversial and has been criticized based on several arguments:

  • Fear and anxiety suppression is implausible in evolutionary terms.
  • Coalitional psychology and collective defence theories provide a better explanation for observed psychological responses to terrifying cues.
  • The responses can be attributed to fear of uncertainty and the unknown.
  • The responses can be interpreted as a search for meaning in life and mortality.
  • The experimental results are difficult to reproduce.

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In summary, Terror Management Theory (TMT) offers insights into how people cope with the existential anxiety of mortality. By suggesting that individuals seek to mitigate this fear through cultural beliefs and bolstering self-esteem, TMT provides a framework for understanding human behaviour. While it has received empirical support, criticisms exist, including concerns about replicability and alternative explanations. Nonetheless, TMT remains a valuable lens through which to examine the complex relationship between mortality awareness, cultural worldviews, and psychological defences.

References +
  • Pyszczynski, T., Lockett, M., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2020). Terror Management Theory and the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 61(2), 173–189. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167820959488
  • Myers, E. (2023). Terror Management Theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/terror-management-theory.html
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M. N., 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. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.58.2.308

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