Thursday, May 20, 2010

Existentialism Today: Terror Management Theory

This is the original introduction for a Letter, tentatively titled, "Can unconscious motivation explain the Climate Crisis."


The purpose of this note is to alert researchers and activists to a recent development in social psychology which offers a scientifically validated way to understand the unconscious motivations of activists and others involved in social movements. Over the last 25 years, terror management theory (TMT) (Pyszczynski et al., 1999; 2004) has demonstrated its validity through hundreds of controlled experiments. This new approach has proved theoretically sound, as well as applicable in a wide range of practical situations. It has been applied in marketing, management, psychotherapy, politics, economics, and other areas. Terror management theory is based upon the work of a cultural anthropologist (Becker, 1973) (A Foundation has been established to disseminate the results of research in this area to both academics and the public at large. URL:

Terror management theory

The theory attempts to explain the foundations of culture and of personal identity. It is a subset of a framework that is known as generative death anxiety. The underlying idea of this framework is that many creative acts can be explained by the desire for immortality in some form, for example, through monuments, buildings, or other lasting objects or symbols. TMT considers culture to be a societal level reflection of individual identity processes. It defines culture as a system of meanings that supersedes the natural world and elevates humans to a higher plane of existence. It defines social identity as our membership in groups.

Terror management theory assumes that at a certain point in human evolution cognitive complexity reached a level which enabled self-awareness. This capacity for self-awareness and the corresponding awareness that the self will cease to exist in the future is the foundation for terror management theory. That is, the awareness of the inevitability of death in an animal programmed for self-preservation by evolution leads to the potential for paralyzing terror. The human species created culture to control this terror. Cultural worldviews ameliorate anxiety by:

:conceiving a universe with meaning

:providing standards of value

:promising death transcendence to those who meet those standards.

That is, terror management theory assumes that a successful society must create a cultural anxiety buffer that shields the individual from the awareness of death. When a death reminder is encountered, it is expected that one of two types of psychological reactions take place. One is worldview defense, that is, responses reinforcing the cultural belief system. The other is a striving to increase status, as defined by the cultural belief system, and thereby self-esteem, since increases in self-esteem have been shown to reduce anxiety. In the well adjusted individual, these responses occur unconsciously, so the individual need never become aware of the death reminder or the processes that suppress awareness of it.

Psychological Emergence of the Self and Modern Socio-Cultural Dilemmas


  1. David, I'm not sure what happened above. But I would love to get the link to the Dr. Solomon speech. I was into it but had to leave for an evening party and when I got back the page had crashed. It was so interesting about the terror management. It's just what I've been thinking about on my own lately.
    Perhaps because you are living in Copenhagen that there is a communication problem. Isn't the Scandinavian Countries more developed than in the USA in modernity and social sciences? You may be more developed in your thinking about some concepts.
    Bruce Rappaport

  2. I just checked the video and it seems to be working, but I am getting a jerky image. The problem is probably due to the fact that it uses MS Silverlight. Try a reboot. If that doesn't do it, then reinstalling Silverlight might be the solution.

    With internet technology, distance should have no effect.

    The differences between the US and Scandinavia are not on the scientific, but on the political level. This means new technology tends to get out to everyone, not just an elite as in the US.

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  4. Good text.

    I recently mentioned the topic of death in a FB post and while could be said to be improper i also believe the remembrance, or fact of death, (whether we have life after which i believe we do, or not) can be powerful (can probably also be the opposite sometimes as most? in this dualistic world)

    I have some comments which basically are that animals can also be said to build culture,
    I guess that the counter argument would be that they somehow are also aware of death and i guess i agree with that.
    But i still believe that even we accept death which I believe I have, then we can stil act to build good things, because for me life is good.
    I believe in and believe to have experienced eternity and what we need to do here on earth, is 'live' eternity and 'do what is needed' of which sustainability is currently perhaps the most needed.

    I have a side comment for : programmed for self-preservation by evolution.
    I agree in the way that as serial connected beings we are programmed for preservation, but as individuals we are programmed to die, there is as i see it no good explanation as to why the body does not sustain itself eternally, except that for our current collective survival it might be best.


    Solomon specifically addresses the fear of death and how his views were derived from the earlier work of Ernest Becker. Becker, Solomon explains, called the fear of death the “main spring of human activity.” Nonetheless we don’t want to face death directly, Solomon adds, and so, “Just like most of us are unaware of the internal dynamics of the engine that drives our car, we are equally unaware of what it is that impels us to do what we do every day.”

  6. Solomon and his several peers develop terror-management theory from Becker's idea of death-denying cultures, which is virtually every culture. Becker was an anthropologist, but the basic idea of death denial or of creating culture to counter the fear and anxiety death prompts in us draws deeply from Freud's ideas of sublimation. An "instinct" to self-preserve is not at odds with denying death, though they probably occur in different domains of human being.

  7. An example of myth construction "False bad news about population growth, natural resources, and the environment":

  8. False bad news from 1970:

  9. Some presentations on the theory: