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Terror management theory (TMT), in social psychology, was originally proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski[1]. The theory starts with a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to humans. Moreover, the solution to the conflict also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. If life is thought meaningful, death is less terrifying.  Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning.[2] 

The simplest examples of cultural values' managing the terror of death are those that purport to offer literal immortality (e.g. belief in afterlife, religion[3]).  However, TMT also argues that other cultural values—including those that are seemingly unrelated to death—offer symbolic immortality.  For example, value of national identity[4], posterity[5], cultural perspectives on sex[6], and human superiority over animals[7] have all been linked to death concerns in some manner.  In many cases these values are thought to offer symbolic immortality by providing the sense that one is part of something greater that will ultimately outlive the individual (e.g. country, lineage, species).    

Empirical support for TMT comes from two main types of studies. First, studies have shown that invoking thoughts of death, often through a manipulation known as mortality salience, leads individuals to expend greater effort in defending or justifying their cultural values[8]. Second, challenging individuals' cultural values leads to their being more likely to think about death[9]. Hence, TMT research suggests that there is to some extent a bi-directional cognitive relationship between cultural values and death concerns.  

Because cultural values determine that which is meaningful, they are also the basis for self-esteem. Indeed, TMT describes self-esteem as being the personal, subjective measure of how well an individual is living up to their cultural values[10].  Research in this area suggests that self-esteem functions similarly to cultural values; threatening self-esteem can initiate defense of values and thoughts of death, bolstering self-esteem is protective against death concerns, and invoking thoughts of death can initiate striving to enhance self-esteem[11].  

TMT is derived from anthropologist 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. The terror of absolute annihilation creates such a profound—albeit subconscious—anxiety in people that they spend their lives attempting to make sense of it. 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. On an individual level, self-esteem provides a buffer against death-related anxiety.


The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.
—Ernest Becker, 1973[12]

Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker asserts in his 1973 book The Denial of Death that humans, as intelligent animals, are able to grasp the inevitability of death. They therefore spend their lives building and believing in cultural elements that illustrate how to make themselves stand out as individuals and give their lives significance and meaning. Death creates an anxiety in humans; it strikes at unexpected and random moments, and its nature is essentially unknowable, causing people to spend most of their time and energy to explain, forestall, and avoid it.[13]

Becker expounded upon the previous writings of Sigmund Freud, Søren Kierkegaard, Norman O. Brown, and Otto Rank. According to clinical psychiatrist Morton Levitt, Becker replaces the Freudian preoccupation with sexuality with the fear of death as the primary motivation in human behavior.[14]

People desire to think of themselves as beings of value and worth with a feeling of permanence, a concept in psychology known as self-esteem, that somewhat resolves the realization that people may be no more important than any other living thing. Becker refers to high self-esteem as heroism:

the problem of heroics is the central one of human life, that it goes deeper into human nature than anything else because it is based on organismic narcissism and on the child's need for self-esteem as the condition for his life. Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.[15]

The terror management theory suggests that people's behavior is dependent upon fear; thus, support for the theory can be seen by examining people's reactions to death and their fear of death. Research not only shows people's reactions to the fear of death, but to suffering as well. Death was welcomed in some cases, by patients and hospice volunteers, if it meant an end to suffering.[16]

The reasons behind people's decisions regarding their own health can be explored through a terror management health model, which has three implications. First, consciousness of death leads people to try to remove all thoughts of death. Secondly, unconscious death thoughts can result in actions taken upon self-esteem as opposed to bodily health. Thirdly, preoccupation with one's physical body can hinder decision-making abilities regarding healthful behavioral choices.[17]

Evolutionary backdropEdit

Terror Management theorists consider TMT to be compatible with the theory of evolution:[18]

Specific fears of things that threaten a human's continued existence have an adaptive function and helped facilitate the survival of ancestors’ genes. However generalized existential anxiety resulting from the clash between a desire for life and awareness of the inevitability of death is neither adaptive nor selected for. TMT views existential anxiety as an unfortunate byproduct of these two highly adaptive human proclivities rather than as an adaptation that evolution selected for its advantages. Just like bipedalism presents problems together with benefits, this anxiety occurs with the existence of human higher mental faculties.

Anxiety in response to the inevitability of death threatened to undermine adaptive functioning and therefore needed amelioration. TMT posits that humankind used the same intellectual capacities that gave rise to this problem to fashion cultural beliefs and values that provided protection against this potential anxiety. TMT considers these cultural beliefs and values adaptive—even the unpleasant and frightening ones – only in that they manage potential death anxiety in a way that promotes beliefs and behaviors that facilitated the functioning and survival of the collective.

Originally, the emergence of morality evolved to facilitate co-existence within groups, which together with language, served more pragmatic functions. However, the struggle to deny the finality of death, co-opted and changed these primitive functions. Neanderthals might have begun burying their dead as a means of avoiding unpleasant odors, disease-infested parasites, or dangerous scavengers. However, during the Upper Paleolithic era, these pragmatic burial practices appear to have become superimposed with layers of ritual and supernatural beliefs, suggested by the elaborate decoration of bodies with thousands of beads or other markers and including food and other necessities for an afterlife within the burial chamber.

Hunter-gatherers began using their emerging cognitive abilities to understand their world and facilitate solving practical problems to help meet basic needs for nutrition, mates, and other resources before their cognitive abilities had evolved to the point where explicit death awareness arose. But once this awareness materialized, the potential for terror that it created put pressure on emerging conceptions of reality so that any formation that was to be widely accepted by the masses needed to provide a means of managing this terror.

Evolutionary history also indicates that evolutionarily “the costs of ignoring threats have outweighed the costs of ignoring opportunities for self-development.” [19]

TMT and self-esteemEdit

Self-esteem lies at the heart of TMT, and is a fundamental part of its main experimental paradigms. TMT, fundamentally, seeks to elucidate the causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem, and theoretically, it draws heavily from Ernest Becker’s conceptions of culture and self-esteem (Becker, 1971;[20] Becker, 1973[21]). TMT does not just attempt to explain what self-esteem is, but rather tries to account for why we need self-esteem, and what psychological functions it may serve.[22] The answer, according to TMT, is that self-esteem is used as a buffer for people to help them cope with anxiety; it is a coping mechanism set in place to help control their terror, along with realizing that humans are animals just trying to manage the universe around them. That is the "why". The "what" for TMT is that self-esteem is a sense of personal value, that is obtained by believing in two things:

  1. the validity of one’s cultural worldview, and
  2. that one is living up to standards that are part of the worldview.[22]

Critically, Hewstone et al. (2002) have questioned the causal direction between self-esteem and death-anxiety, asking questions such as, if people's need for self-esteem comes from the overall desire to reduce their death anxiety, or if it is the opposite.[23] Individuals' reduction of death anxiety is coming from their overall need to increase their self-esteem in a positive manner.[23]

Research has demonstrated that in terms of health, self-esteem can play an important role. In some cases, people may be so concerned with their physical appearance and boosting their self-esteem that they ignore problems or concerns with their own physical health.[24] Arndt et al. (2009) conducted three studies to examine how peer perceptions and social acceptance of smokers contributes to their quitting, as well as if, and why these people continue smoking for outside reasons, even when faced with thoughts of death and anti-smoking prompts.[24] Tanning and exercising were also looked at in the researchers' studies. The studies found that people are influenced by the situations around them.[24] Specifically, Arndt et al. (2009) found in terms of their self-esteem and health, that participants who saw someone exercising were more likely to increase their intentions to exercise.[24] In addition, the researchers found in study two that how participants reacted to an anti-smoking commercial was affected by their motivation for smoking and the situation in which they were in. For instance, people who smoked for extrinsic reasons and were previously prompted with death reminders were more likely to be compelled by the anti-smoking message.[24]

Self-esteem as anxiety bufferEdit

Individuals’ levels of self-consciousness not only impacts their views on life, but more specifically, their views on death. Research has demonstrated that in some instances, individuals with higher levels of self-consciousness have increased death cognitions, and a generally more negative outlook on life.[25]

Conversely, self-esteem can work in the opposite manner. Research has confirmed that individuals with higher self-esteem, particularly in regards to their behavior, have a more positive attitude towards their life. Specifically, death cognitions in the form of anti-smoking warnings were effective for smokers and in fact, increased their already positive attitudes towards the behavior.[26] The reasons behind individuals’ optimistic attitudes towards smoking after mortality was made salient are that once again, people use their positivity as a buffer to hide behind their fears. Therefore, anxiety buffers allow individuals to cope with their fears more easily. Furthermore, death cognitions might in fact make people engage more in the said behavior (smoking in this instance).[26]

TMT and mortality salienceEdit

The mortality salience hypothesis (MS) states that if indeed one’s cultural worldview, or their self-esteem serves a death-denying function, then threatening these constructs should produce defenses aimed at restoring psychological equanimity (i.e., returning the individual to a state of feeling invulnerable). In the MS paradigm, these "threats" are simply experimental reminders of one’s own death. This can, and has, taken many different forms in a variety of study paradigms (e.g., asking participants to write about their own death;[27] conducting the experiment near funeral homes or cemeteries;[28] having participants watch graphic depictions of death,[29] etc.). Like the other TMT hypotheses, the literature supporting the MS hypothesis is vast and diverse. For a meta analysis of MS research, see Burke et al. (2010).[30]

Experimentally, the MS hypothesis has been tested in close to 200 empirical articles.[30] After being asked to write about their own death (vs. a neutral, non-death control topic, such as dental pain), and then following a brief delay (distal, worldview/self-esteem defenses work the best after a delay; see Greenberg et al. (1994)[29] for a discussion), the defenses are measured. In one early TMT study assessing the MS hypothesis, Greenberg et al. (1990)[4] had Christian participants evaluate other Christian and Jewish students that were similar demographically, but differed in their religious affiliation. After being reminded of their death (experimental MS induction), Christian participants evaluated fellow Christians more positively, and Jewish participants more negatively, relative to the control condition.[31] Conversely, bolstering self-esteem in these scenarios leads to less worldview defense and derogation of dissimilar others.[31]

Mortality salience has an influence on individuals and their decisions regarding their health. Cox et al. (2009) discuss mortality salience in terms of suntanning. Specifically, the researchers found that participants who were prompted with the idea that pale was more socially attractive along with mortality reminders, tended to lean towards decisions that resulted in more protective measures from the sun.[32] The participants were placed in two different conditions; one group of participants were given an article relating to the fear of death, while the control group received an unrelated to death article dealing with the fear of public speaking.[32] Additionally, they gave one group an article pertaining to the message that "bronze is beautiful," one relating to the idea that "pale is pretty," and one neutral article that did not speak of tan or pale skin tones.[32] Finally, after introducing a delay activity, the researchers gave the participants a five-item questionnaire asking them about their future sun-tanning behaviors. The study illustrated that when tan skinned was associated with attractiveness, mortality salience positively affected people's intentions to suntan; however, when pale skin was associated with attractiveness people's intentions to tan decreased.[32]

Mortality and self-esteem on health risksEdit

Studies have shown that mortality and self-esteem are important factors of the terror management theory. Jessop et al. (2008) study this relationship within four studies that all examine how people react when they are given information on risks, specifically, in terms of the mortality related to the risks of driving.[33] More specifically, the researchers were exploring how participants acted in terms of self-esteem, and its impact on how mortality-related health-risk information would be received.[33] Overall, Jessop et al. (2008) found that even when mortality is prominent, people who engage in certain behaviors to improve their self-esteem have a greater chance of continuing with these activities.[33] Mortality and self-esteem are both factors that influence people's behaviors and decision-making regarding their health. Furthermore, individuals who are involved in behaviors and possess motivation to enhance their self-worth are less likely to be affected by the importance placed on health risks, in terms of mortality.[33]

Self-esteem is important when mortality is made salient. It can allow people a coping mechanism, one that can cushion individuals' fears; and thus, impacting one’s attitudes towards a given behavior.[26] Individuals who have higher levels of self-esteem regarding their behavior(s) are less likely to have their attitudes, and thus their behaviors changed regardless of mortality salient or death messages.[26] People will use their self-esteem to hide behind their fears of dying. In terms of smoking behaviors, people with higher smoking-based self-esteem are less susceptible to anti-smoking messages that relate to death; therefore, mortality salience and death warnings afford them with an even more positive outlook on their behavior, or in this instance their smoking.[26]

In the Hansen et al. (2010) experiment the researchers manipulated mortality salience. In the experiment, Hansen et al. (2010) examined smokers’ attitudes towards the behavior of smoking. Actual warning labels were utilized to create mortality salience in this specific experiment. The researchers first gave participants a questionnaire to measure their smoking-based self-esteem.[26] Following the questionnaire, participants were randomly assigned to two different conditions; the first were given anti-smoking warning labels about death and the second, control group were exposed to anti-smoking warning labels not dealing with death.[26] Before the participants’ attitudes towards smoking were taken the researchers introduced an unrelated question to provide a delay. Further research has demonstrated that delays allow mortality salience to emerge because thoughts of death become non-conscious.[26] Finally, participants were asked questions regarding their intended future smoking behavior.[26] It should be noted however, that one weakness in their conduction was that the final questionnaire addressed opinions and behavioral questions, as opposed to the participants level of persuasion regarding the different anti-smoking warning labels.

Social impacts and TMTEdit

Many people are more motivated by social pressures, rather than health risks. Specifically for younger people, mortality salience is stronger in eliciting changes of one's behavior when it brings awareness to the immediate loss of social status or position, rather than a loss, such as death that one can not imagine and feels far off.[34] However, there are many different factors to take into consideration, such as how strongly an individual feels toward a decision, their level of self-esteem, and the situation around them. Particularly with people's smoking behaviors, self-esteem and mortality salience have different effects on individuals’ decisions. In terms of the longevity of their smoking decisions, it has been seen that individuals’ smoking habits are affected, in the short-term sense, when they are exposed to mortality salience that interrelates with their own self-esteem. Moreover, people who viewed social exclusion prompts were more likely to quit smoking in the long run than those who were simply shown health-effects of smoking.[34] More specifically, it was demonstrated that when individuals had high levels of self-esteem they were more likely to quit smoking following the social pressure messages, rather than the health risk messages.[34] In this specific instance, terror management, and specifically mortality salience is showing how people are more motivated by the social pressures and consequences in their environment, rather than consequences relating to their health. This is mostly seen in young adult smokers with higher smoking-based self-esteems who are not thinking of their future health and the less-immediate affects of smoking on their health.[34]

Death thought accessibilityEdit

Another paradigm that TMT researchers use to get at unconscious concerns about death is what is known as the death thought accessibility (DTA) hypothesis. Essentially, the DTA hypothesis states that if individuals are motivated to avoid cognitions about death, and they avoid these cognitions by espousing a worldview or by buffering their self-esteem, then when threatened, an individual should possess more death-related cognitions (e.g., thoughts about death, and death-related stimuli) than they would when not threatened.[35]

The DTA hypothesis has its origins in work by Greenberg et al. (1994)[29] as an extension of their earlier terror management hypotheses (i.e., the anxiety buffer hypothesis and the mortality salience hypothesis). The researchers reasoned that if, as indicated by Wegner’s research on thought suppression (1994; 1997), thoughts that are purposely suppressed from conscious awareness are often brought back with ease, then following a delay death-thought cognitions should be more available to consciousness than (a) those who keep the death-thoughts in their consciousness the whole time, and (b) those who suppress the death-thoughts but are not provided a delay. That is precisely what they found. However, it should be noted that other psychologists have failed to replicate these findings.[36]

In these initial studies (i.e., Greenberg et al. (2004); Arndt et al. (1997)[37]), and in numerous subsequent DTA studies, the main measure of DTA is a word fragment task, whereby participants can complete word fragments in distinctly death-related ways (e.g., coff_ _ as coffin, not coffee) or in non death-related ways (e.g., sk_ _l as skill, not skull).[38] If death-thoughts are indeed more available to consciousness, then it stands to reason that the word fragments should be completed in a way that is semantically related to death.

Importance of the DTA hypothesisEdit

The introduction of this hypothesis has refined TMT, and led to new avenues of research that formerly could not be assessed due to the lack of an empirically validated way of measuring death-related cognitions. Also, the differentiation between proximal (conscious, near, and threat-focused) and distal (unconscious, distant, symbolic) defenses that have been derived from DTA studies have been extremely important in understanding how people deal with their terror.[39]

It is important to note how the DTA paradigm subtly alters, and expands, TMT as a motivational theory. Instead of solely manipulating mortality and witnessing its effects (e.g., nationalism, increased prejudice, risky sexual behavior, etc.), the DTA paradigm allows a measure of the death-related cognitions that result from various affronts to the self. Examples include threats to self-esteem and to one's worldview; the DTA paradigm can therefore assess the role of death-thoughts in self-esteem and worldview defenses. Furthermore, the DTA hypothesis lends support to TMT in that it corroborates its central hypothesis that death is uniquely problematic for human beings, and that it is fundamentally different in its effects than meaning threats, (i.e., Heine et al., 2006[40]) and that is death itself, and not uncertainty and lack of control associated with death; Fritsche et al. (2008) explore this idea.[41]

Since its inception, the DTA hypothesis had been rapidly gaining ground in TMT investigations, and as of 2009, has been employed in over 60 published papers, with a total of more than 90 empirical studies.[35]

Death anxiety on health promotionEdit

How people respond to their fears and anxiety of death is investigated in TMT. Moreover, Taubman-Ben-Ari and Noy (2010) examine the idea that a persons' level of self-awareness and self-consciousness should be considered in relation to their responses to their anxiety and death cognitions.[25] The more an individual is presented with their death or death cognitions in general, the more fear and anxiety one may have; therefore, to combat said anxiety one may implement anxiety buffers.[25]

Due to a change in people's lifestyles, in the direction of more unhealthy behaviors, the leading causes of death now, being cancer and heart disease, most definitely are related to individuals' unhealthy behaviors.[42] Age and death anxiety both are factors that should be considered in the terror management theory, in relation to health-promoting behaviors. Age undoubtedly plays some kind of role in people's health-promoting behaviors; however, if there is an actual age related effect on death anxiety and health-promoting behaviors has yet to be seen. Although, research has demonstrated that for young adults only, when they were prompted with death related scenarios, they yielded more health-promoting behaviors, compared to those participants in their sixties. In addition, death anxiety has been found to have an effect for young adults, on their behaviors of health promotion.[42]

Terror management health modelEdit

The terror management health model (TMHM) explores the role that death plays on one's health and behavior. Goldenberg and Arndt (2008) state 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.[17]

According to Goldenberg and Arndt (2008), certain health behaviors such as breast self-exams(BSEs) can consciously activate and facilitate people to think of death, especially their own death.[17] While death can be instrumental for individuals, in some cases, when breast self-exams activate people's death thoughts an obstacle can present itself, in terms of health promotion, because individuals’ experience fear and threat.[17]

On the other hand, death and thoughts of death can serve as a way of empowering the self, not as threats. Researchers, Cooper et al. (2011) explored TMHM in terms of empowerment, specifically using BSEs under two conditions; when death thoughts were prompted, and when thoughts of death were non-conscious.[38] According to TMHM, people's health decisions, when death thoughts are not conscious, should be based on their motivations to act appropriately, in terms of the self and identity.[38] Cooper et al. (2011) found that when mortality and death thoughts were primed, women reported more empowerment feelings than those who were not prompted before performing a BSE.[38]

Additionally, TMHM suggests that mortality awareness and self-esteem are important factors in individuals' decision making and behaviors relating to their health. TMHM explores how people will engage in behaviors, whether positive or negative, even with the heightened awareness of mortality, in the attempt to conform to society's expectations and improve their self-esteem.[32] The TMHM is useful in understanding what motivates individuals regarding their health decisions and behaviors.

In terms of smoking behaviors and attitudes, the impact of warnings with death messages depends on:

1). The individuals’ level of smoking-based self-esteem

2). The warnings' actual degree of death information[26]

Emotion and TMT Edit

People with low self-esteem, but not high self-esteem, have more negative emotions when reminded of death. This is believed to be because these individuals lack the very defenses that TMT argues protect people from mortality concerns (e.g., solid worldviews). In contrast, positive mood states are not impacted by death thoughts for people of low or high self-esteem.[43]

TMT and leadershipEdit

It has been suggested that culture provides meaning, organization, and a coherent world view that diminishes the psychological terror caused by the knowledge of eventual death. The terror management theory can help to explain why a leader's popularity can grow substantially during times of crisis. When a follower's mortality is made prominent they will tend to show a strong preference for iconic leaders. An example of this occurred when George W. Bush's approval rating jumped almost 50 percent following the September 11 attacks in the United States. As Forsyth (2009) posits, this tragedy made U.S. citizens aware of their mortality, and Bush provided an antidote to these existential concerns by promising to bring justice to the terrorist group responsible for the attacks.

Researchers Cohen et al. (2004), in their particular study on TMT, tested the preferences for different types of leaders, while reminding people of their mortality. Three different candidates were presented to participants. The three leaders were of three different types: task-oriented (emphasized setting goals, strategic planning, and structure), relationship-oriented (emphasized compassion, trust, and confidence in others), and charismatic. The participants were then placed in one of two conditions: mortality salient or control group. In the former condition the participants were asked to describe the emotions surrounding their own death, as well as the physical act of the death itself, whereas the control group were asked similar questions about an upcoming exam. The results of the study were that the charismatic leader was favored more, and the relationship-oriented leader was favored less, in the mortality-salient condition. Further research has shown that mortality salient individuals also prefer leaders who are members of the same group, as well as men rather than women (Hoyt et al. (2010)). This has links to social role theory.

TMT and ReligionEdit

TMT posits that religion was created as a means for humans to cope with their own mortality. Supporting this, arguments in favor of life after death, and simply being religious, reduce the effects of mortality salience on worldview defense and thoughts of death have been found to increase religious beliefs. At an implicit, subconscious level, this is the case even for atheists.

[44] [45]


Several psychologists, especially evolutionary psychologists, have argued against terror management theory.[46][47][48][49] One scholar commented that the field of psychology would be advanced by a study of paralyzed states caused by anxiety that would only be alleviated with the reworking of a person's mental state.[50] These authors instead explain human behavior is selected to urge people to avoid situations likely to lead to death. This suggests that mortality salience effects reflect adaptive responses to solve specific life-threats rather than an unconscious attempt to avoid this realization.

Prevalence of death in TMTEdit

Since findings on mortality salience and worldview defense were first published, other researchers have claimed that the effects may have been obtained due to reasons other than death itself, such as anxiety, fear, or other aversive stimuli such as pain. Other studies have found effects similar to those that MS results in – for example, thinking about difficult personal choices to be made, being made to respond to open-ended questions regarding uncertainty, thinking about being robbed, thinking about being socially isolated, and being told (falsely) that one’s life lacks meaning.[51] While these cases exist, thoughts of death have since been compared to various aversive experimental controls, such as (but not limited to) thinking about: failure, writing a critical exam, public speaking with a considerable audience, being excluded, paralysis, dental pain, intense physical pain, etc.[51]

With regards to the studies that found similar effects, TMT theorists have argued that in the previously mentioned studies where death was not the subject thought about, the subjects would quite easily be related to death in an individual’s mind due to "linguistic or experiential connection with mortality".(p. 332)[51] For example, being robbed invokes thoughts of violence and being unsafe in one’s own home – many people have died trying to protect their property and family. A second possible explanation for these results involves the death-thought accessibility hypothesis: these threats somehow sabotage crucial anxiety-buffering aspects of an individual’s worldview or self-esteem, which increases their DTA. For example, one study found increased DTA in response to thoughts of antagonistic relations with attachment figures.[51]

The Meaning Maintenance ModelEdit

The Meaning Maintenance Model (MMM) was initially introduced as a comprehensive motivational theory that claimed to subsume TMT, with alternative explanations for TMT findings. Essentially, it posits that people automatically give meaning to things, and when those meanings are somehow disrupted, it causes anxiety.[40] In response, people concentrate on "meaning maintenance to reestablish their sense of symbolic unity" and that such "meaning maintenance often involves the compensatory reaffirmation of alternative meaning structures".[40] These meanings, among other things, should "provide a basis for prediction and control of our...environments, help [one] to cope with tragedy and trauma...and the symbolic cheating of death via adherence to the enduring values that these cultures provide".[40]

TMT theorists argue that MMM cannot describe why different sets of meaning are preferred for a symbol by different people, and that while they may exist, "different [(i.e., more concrete)] types of meaning have different psychological functions".[51] For example, MMM theorists argue that all types of meaning are basically equal, and yet one could not compare the likelihood of defensive responses resulting from exposure to a deck of cards containing black hearts with something like the September 11 attacks.[51] TMT theorists argue, essentially, that unless something is an important element of a person’s anxiety-buffering worldview or self-esteem, it will not require broad meaning maintenance.[51]

In sum, TMT theorists believe that MMM cannot accurately claim to be an alternative to TMT because it does not seem to be able to explain the current breadth of TMT evidence.[51] As an example, TMT theorists assert that mortality salience would not be a threat to meaning, since our eventual demise is a necessary condition of life. Therefore, it should not cause an individual to engage in general meaning maintenance. MMM also makes no attempt to explain why threatening meaning increases DTA.[51]

Offensive defensivenessEdit

Some theorists have argued that it is not the idea of death and nonexistence that is unsettling to people, but the fact that uncertainty is involved.[52] For example, these researchers posited that people defend themselves by altering their fear responses from uncertainty to an enthusiasm approach.[51] TMT theorists agree that uncertainty can be disconcerting in some cases and it may even result in defense responses, but note that they believe the inescapability of death and the possibility of its finality regarding one’s existence is most unsettling. They ask, "‘Would death be any less frightening if you knew for certain that it would come next Tuesday at 5:15 p.m., and that your hopes for an afterlife were illusory?’....Would you rather be certain that death is the end, or live with the uncertainty that it might not be?" They also note that people actually seek out some types of uncertainty, and that being uncertain is not always very unpleasant.[51]

Though TMT theorists acknowledge that many responses to mortality salience involve greater approaches (zealousness) towards important worldviews, they also note examples of MS which resulted in the opposite, which offensive defensiveness cannot account for: when negative features of a group to which participants belong were made salient, people actively distanced themselves from that group under MS.[51]

Evolutionary psychology, coalitional psychology, and TMTEdit

Several critiques have been proposed against TMT from evolutionary psychologists – for reasons including that fear is an adaptive response in individuals' that has come about as a result of natural selection; without these adaptions human beings would have never been able to avoid maladaptive situations.[18] Thus, it is unlikely that people would have psychological ways of slowing-down anxiety.[18] In response, TMT theorists argue that this critique is mixing up fear related to immediate danger with anxiety related to thoughts of threats that will or may occur eventually.[18] TMT is talking about the protection that self-esteem and cultural worldviews offer against the threat of unavoidable death in the future. While anxiety may be adaptive in avoiding entering a dangerous place (e.g. because a predator may be waiting), this doesn’t mean that anxiety must be adaptive in all cases – just ask any clinician who helps people suffering from anxiety disorders.[18] For a more comprehensive review of TMT and evolutionary psychology, see Landau et al., 2007.[18]

Coalitional psychology (CP) is presented as another alternative to TMT, which proposes that there is an evolutionary tendency to seek safety in groups (coalitions) as a reaction to adaptive threats.[53] People already a part of coalitional groups seek to protect their membership by exhibiting their value to the group.[53]

See alsoEdit


  1. Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes andconsequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. InR. F. Baumeister (Ed.),Public self and private self(pp. 189 –212). NewYork: Springer-Verlag
  2. Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In Public self and private self (pp. 189-212). Springer New York. Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. Advances in experimental social psychology, 24(93), 159.
  3. Jonas, E., & Fischer, P. (2006). Terror management and religion: evidence that intrinsic religiousness mitigates worldview defense following mortality salience.Journal of personality and social psychology, 91(3), 553.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 308-318.
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  7. Goldenberg, J. L., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2000). Fleeing the body: A terror management perspective on the problem of human corporeality. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4(3), 200-218.
  8. 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.
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  11. Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review.Psychological bulletin, 130(3), 435. Inversely, invoking thoughts of death can encourage striving to achieve higher self-esteem. 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.
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  • Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death, The Free Press. ISBN 0-02-902380-7
  • Pyszczynski, Thomas; Solomon, Sheldon; Greenberg, Jeff (2003). In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, American Psychological Association. ISBN 1-55798-954-0
  • Solomon, Sheldon, Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (1991) "A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of esteem and cultural worldviews", in M. P. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in experimental social psychology Volume 24, Academic Press, pp. 93–159. ISBN 0-12-015224-X

External linksEdit

  • Curtis, V. (2001). Dirt, disgust, and disease: Is hygiene in our genes?. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44 (1): 17–31.
  • Darwin, C. (1872/1998). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. 3rd edition,, London: Harper Collins.
  • Florian, V., Mikulincer, M. (1997). Fear of death and the judgment of social transgressions: a multidimensional test of terror. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73 (2): 369–80.
  • Goldenberg, J.L., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Kluck, B., & Cornwell, R. (2001). I am not an animal: Mortality salience, disgust, and the denial of human creatureliness. Journal of Experimental Psychology 130 (3): 427–435.
  • Goldenberg, J.L., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2000). Fleeing the body: A terror management perspective on the problem of human corporeality. Personality & Social Psychology Review 4 (3): 200–218.
  • Greenberg, J.; Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). "title = The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory" R. F. Baumeister (Ed.) Public self and private self, 189–212, New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T.; Solomon, S.; Rosenblatt, A.; Veeder, M.; Kirkland, S. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory. II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to. Journal of personality and social psychology 58 (2): 308–318. 13817, 35400000600727.0100 (INIST-CNRS).
  • Greenberg, J., Solomon, S.; Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and. Advances in experimental social psychology 29 (S 61): 139.
  • Hansen, J, Winzeler, S, Topolinski, S (2010). When death makes you smoke: a terror management perspective on the effectiveness of cigarette on-pack warnings. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46: 226.
  • Hirschberger, G., Florian, V., & Mikulincer, M. (2003). Striving for romantic intimacy following partner complaint or partner criticism: A terror. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 20 (5): 675–687.
  • Judis, J.B. (August 27, 2007). Death grip: How political psychology explains Bush's ghastly success. New Republic.
  • Lazarus, R.S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Mikulincer, M., Florian, V., & Hirschberger, G. (2003). The existential function of close relationships. Introducing death into the science of love. Personality and Social Psychology Review 7 (1): 20–40.
  • Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (1997). Why do we need what we need? A terror management perspective on the roots of human social motivation. Psychological Inquiry 8 (1): 1–20.
  • Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (1999). A dual process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: An. Psychology Review 106 (4): 835–845.
  • 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. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (4): 681–90.
  • Royzman, E.B., Sabini, J. (2001). Something it takes to be an emotion: The interesting case of disgust. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 31 (1): 29–59.
  • Shehryar, O., Hunt, D.M. (2005). A terror management perspective on the persuasiveness of fear appeals. Journal of Consumer Psychology 15 (4): 275–287.
  • Simon, L., Arndt, J., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1998). Terror management and meaning: Evidence that the opportunity to defend the worldview in response. Journal of Personality 66 (3359–382): 359.
  • Simon, L., Greenberg, J., Harmon-Jones, E., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., & Abend, T. (1997). Terror management and Cognitive-Experiential Self-Theory: Evidence that terror management occurs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72 (5): 1132–1146.

Further resourcesEdit

  • Greenberg, J.; Koole, S. L., & Pyszczynski, T. (2004). Handbook of experimental existential psychology, Guilford Press.
  • Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Maxfield, M., & Cohen, F. (2004). Fatal attraction. The effects of mortality salience on evaluations of charismatic, task-oriented,.
  • Gutierrez, C. (2006). Consumer attraction to luxury brand products: Social affiliation in terror management theory.

Discusses TMT at length

  • Griffin, R. (2007). Fascism & Modernism, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

TMT and Self-Esteem

  • Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 435-468.
  • Schmeichel, B.J., Gailliot, M.T., Filardo, E.A., McGregor, I., Gitter, S. & Baumeister, R.F. (2009). Terror management theory and self esteem revisited: The roles of implicit and explicit self-esteem in mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5),1077-1087.

Hansen, J., Winzeler, S., & Topolinski, S. (2010). When the death makes you smoke: A terror management perspective on the effectiveness of cigarette on-pack warnings. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), 226-228 DOI:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.09.007

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