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Terror management theory

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Terror management theory (TMT) is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people when confronted with the psychological terror of knowing we will eventually die (it is widely believed that our awareness of mortality is a trait that is unique to humans). The theory was first developed in the late 1980s by Skidmore College psychology professor Sheldon Solomon, University of Arizona psychology professor Jeff Greenberg, and Colorado University @ Colorado Springs psychology professor Tom Pyszczynski, who were graduate students at the University of Kansas at the time. The trio were inspired by the theories of Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, 1973) and Freud, on how potent reminders of one's own ultimate death often provoke a belief in some form of mystical transcendence (heaven, reincarnation, spiritualism, etc.).

The theory builds from the assumption that the capability of self-reflection and the consciousness of one’s own mortality, can be regarded as a continuous source for existential anguish. Culture diminishes this psychological terror by providing meaning, organization and continuity to men's and women's lives. Compliance with cultural values enhances one's feeling of security and self-esteem, provided that the individual is capable of living in accordance with whatever particular cultural standards apply to him or her. The belief in the rightness of the cultural values and standards creates the conviction necessary to live a reasonable and meaningful life. Because of this men and women strive to have their cultural worldview confirmed by others, thereby receiving the community’s esteem. However, when one’s worldview is threatened by the weltanschauungen of another, it often results in one’s self-respect being endangered as well. In such a situation people not only endeavour to deny or devalue the importance third party weltanschauung, but try to controvert the ideas and opinions of others which may, as a consequence, escalate into a conflict.

Research has shown that people, when reminded of their own inevitable death, will cling more strongly to their cultural worldviews. The data appears to show that nations or persons who have experienced traumas (e.g. 9/11) are more attracted to strong leaders who express traditional, pro-establishment, authoritarian viewpoints. They will also be hyper-aware of the possibility of external threats, and may be more hostile to those who threaten them.

The theory gained media attention in the aftermath of 9/11, and after the re-election of President George W. Bush in the USA, Prime Minister Tony Blair in the UK, and John Howard in Australia.

Terror management researchers have shown that making research participants think about death will lead to such changes in behaviors and beliefs that seemingly protect worldview and self-esteem. Nevertheless, these researchers have not yet demonstrated that this happens for the reason they propose, namely to alleviate unconscious fears of death. Direct tests of this hypothesis are likely to soon emerge in the scholarly literature.


See also

Further resources

  • Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2002). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. American Psychological Association.

Film: Flight From Death which features Pyszcynski, Solomon Sheldon and Greenberg. http://www.flightfromdeath.com

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