Sunday, March 8, 2020

Terror Management Theory



Terror Management Theory (TMT) was proposed by psychological scientists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski. 

The theory posits that people manage the terror inherent in their awareness of their own death by investing in that which is more durable. They experience conflict between the instinctual urge to live and the reality of death.

Research findings indicate that when people are reminded of their mortality (Mortality Salience, MS), they create or use an anxiety buffer. Becoming a part of a meaningful group helps cope with death awareness.

Many religious teachings guide people to "life after life," which in itself is a phrase that omits the more common, "life after death." Others find meaning in their children and grandchildren, the possessions they leave behind, and contributions to their nations.

Terror Management Theory is related to self-esteem. Many people assess their self-esteem or self-worth by a comparison to their culture's way of defining worth.

Here is a quote from the theorists' 2015 summary of research.


Terror management theory posits that human awareness of the inevitability of death exerts a profound influence on diverse aspects of human thought, emotion, motivation, and behavior. People manage the potential for anxiety that results from this awareness by maintaining: (1) faith in the absolute validity of their cultural worldviews and (2) self-esteem by living up to the standards of value that are part of their worldviews. In this chapter, we take stock of the past 30 years of research and conceptual development inspired by this theory. After a brief review of evidence supporting the theory's fundamental propositions, we discuss extensions of the theory to shed light on: (1) the psychological mechanisms through which thoughts of death affect subsequent thought and behavior; (2) how the anxiety-buffering systems develop over childhood and beyond; (3) how awareness of death influenced the evolution of mind, culture, morality, and religion; (4) how death concerns lead people to distance from their physical bodies and seek solace in concepts of mind and spirit; and (5) the role of death concerns in maladaptive and pathological behavior. (Abstract)


One recent root of TMT can be found in the book, The Denial of Death by cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker. Becker draws on earlier work about death anxiety. See my review (Sutton, 2015) for quotes from Becker's book and applications to religion.

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