Death defying

We are the only animal that knows we are going to die. How we
cope with that knowledge could change our world, says Kate

“NOT to be here, Not to be anywhere, And soon; nothing more
terrible, nothing more true.” Philip Larkin’s evocation of
death in his poem Aubade is bleak, even chilling. But Larkin
was notoriously gloomy: ask a bunch of psychology students to
imagine being dead and you’ll get a rather different
perspective. “It will suck” or “I’ll just rot” are typical
responses. It’s not just that scientists are less articulate
than poets. The truth is that most of us do not experience the
all-pervading existential angst that haunted Larkin. Far from
being terrified by the prospect of annihilation, most of the
time we go about our daily lives as though it will never

And that is very strange. Here we are, the only animals on the
planet capable of anticipating the day when we will no longer
exist, yet mostly we ignore this insight. Why are we not
constantly paralysed with fear? Many have never even
considered this question. But some psychologists argue that
the fear of death does in fact take centre stage in most of
our thoughts and behaviours. The thought of death is so
terrifying, they say, that our minds have evolved mechanisms
to repress this fear and these are at the root of how we
construct our societies, how we treat others, and the way we
see ourselves.

This idea underpins a school of thought called terror
management theory. TMT claims to explain our reactions to
events that threaten the veneer of permanence and meaning that
we put on the world. It makes sense of the aftermath of the
terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001: the immediate hike in
sales of star-spangled banners, the increase in xenophobia and
the way Americans rallied behind a president who until then
had been seen by many as failing. More importantly, say TMT
advocates, being able to predict how people respond when
brought face to face with their own mortality should allow us
to cultivate our nobler instincts such as tolerance, altruism
and creativity, and curb more sinister ones such as prejudice,
hatred and aggression.

The idea was born one day, two decades ago, as three long-time
friends, Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski and Jeff Greenberg,
contemplated The Denial of Death, a 1974 Pulitzer prizewinning
book by the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. The three
psychologists wondered why we humans expend so much energy
bolstering our self-esteem by defending ourselves against
personal attacks, and why we put so much faith in our
particular world view, such as our religion or beliefs about
what is important in life. Becker seemed to provide an answer:
these are the mechanisms, he argued, by which we buffer
ourselves against fear of death.

Could he be on to something? Greenberg, who is at the
University of Arizona, Tucson; Solomon, from Skidmore College
in Saratoga Springs, New York; and Pyszczynski, from the
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, decided the idea was
worth testing. Their first experiment was designed to test how
being made aware of our mortality affects subsequent behaviour
towards someone who violates aspects of our world view. To do
this they asked a group of municipal court judges to write a
few sentences about what they thought would happen to them
when they died, and how this made them feel. The judges then
had to set bond, or bail price, for a hypothetical woman
accused of prostitution. A second group of judges also had to
set bond for the same woman, but without being made to think
about their death beforehand. The difference was remarkable.
The average bond set by the first group was $455, while the
controls asked for just $50. Thinking about death clearly made
the judges less forgiving of someone whose behaviour did not
fit with their world view.

Next, to investigate the connection between fear of death and
self-esteem, the trio gave two groups of volunteers bogus
feedback from a personality test. Individuals in the first
group were portrayed in a glowing light, whereas those in the
second had slightly less positive feedback. Half of each group
were then shown film clips showing images of death while the
other half viewed neutral footage. When the researchers tested
anxiety levels by asking subjects how they felt, they found
that boosting people’s self-esteem allowed them to watch the
death-related film clips without feeling any more anxious than
people watching the neutral footage. Without the boost, the
death-related images aroused considerably more anxiety than
the neutral ones. “What self-esteem is doing is convincing us
that we are significant beings,” Greenberg says. “By being
more than just animals we persuade ourselves that we are not
subject to the natural laws of decay and death.”

Solomon, Pyszczynski and Greenberg were convinced they were
onto something. They argued that recreating the universe as a
place full of order and meaning helps us cope with the terror
that knowledge of our own death would otherwise bring. A world
view that includes concepts such as the soul, reincarnation
and an afterlife offers literal immortality. It also provides
symbolic immortality through association with entities
including nations, groups and causes that are larger and
longer-lasting than ourselves, and through tangible
reflections of our existence, such as children, money and
culturally valued achievements. We in turn derive self-esteem
from living up to the values and standards of our particular
conception of reality.

Initially these ideas were met with scepticism, but since the
first paper was published in 1985, more than 200 studies have
been carried out, all suggesting that we respond to reminders
of our death in predictable ways.

Many of the experiments show just how pervasive is the link
between reminders of death, or “mortality salience”, and our
reactions to people who do or do not share our particular
world view. Holly McGregor at the University of Arizona and
colleagues found that following mortality salience, people
were more likely to administer large quantities of chilli
sauce to a chilli-hating third party who did not hold the same
political views as themselves than to someone whose politics
matched their own. By contrast, volunteers who were not asked
to contemplate death beforehand gave around the same amount of
sauce to both groups. Likewise, Greenberg and others found
that Christian subjects rated other Christians more positively
than Jews following mortality salience. And researchers from
the University of Mainz in Germany showed that German students
sat closer to a fellow German and further away from a Turk
after contemplating their own death.

Other studies indicate that reminders of death increase
people’s conformity to cultural norms – traits or behaviours
that are sanctioned by their particular group. In one study
Greenberg found that people valued charity more highly if they
were interviewed next to a funeral home than elsewhere on the
street. In another, the researchers presented American
subjects with two problems that could best be solved in the
first case by sifting black dye through the American flag and
in the second by hammering a nail with a crucifix. People
forced to contemplate their death took much longer to solve
the problems and Solomon, Pyszczynski and Greenberg believe
that this is because death thoughts made people uneasy about
using these American and Christian icons in inappropriate ways.
Other studies have shown that reminders of death have the
effect of making people strive to bolster their self-esteem:
people who prided themselves on being good drivers tended to
drive more boldly and those who valued their appearance
focused on improving it. The experimental evidence leaves
little doubt that we are affected by our own mortality – at
least when we are forced to confront it.

Where TMT becomes contentious is in its insistence that fear
of death is at the root of virtually all our thoughts and
actions. How can it be, when most people say they rarely to
think about death?

In an attempt to solve this conundrum, Solomon, Pyszczynski
and Greenberg have been trying to figure out the mental
processes involved. Working with Jamie Arndt from the
University of Missouri-Columbia, they found that immediately
after mortality salience, subjects do not show physiological
signs of anxiety and claim not to feel worried. “The first
thing that happens is there is an active suppression process
that appears to be geared towards blotting out the conscious
awareness of death,” says Solomon. In the few minutes that
follow, thoughts associated with death become unconsciously
accessible. People become more likely to associate word
prompts with death-related words: “coff-” with coffin rather
than coffee, for example. Finally, after about 10 to 15
minutes, subjects react with the predictable sorts of
responses that bolster their self-esteem and reaffirm their
world view, which in turn seems to suppress the unconscious
death thoughts.

So, the mental defences that allow us to overcome our fear of
death take two distinct forms, the TMT theorists say.
Conscious thoughts of death are actively suppressed, and
unconscious ones result in the responses seen in the
experiments. This distinction is important for the theory,
they say, because it explains how the mostly unconscious,
ever-present knowledge of mortality influences our behaviour
in so many ways and yet we are still able to get on with our
lives without experiencing paralysing fear.

But TMT goes even further, arguing that the knowledge of our
own mortality is so potentially debilitating that once our
ancestors gained it, they would have been compelled to
drastically alter their world to cope. Nobody knows exactly
when the insight occurred, though it is likely to have emerged
from increasingly sophisticated brains that were at least
capable of self-awareness and conceiving a past, present and
future. TMT advocates argue that the realisation of mortality
led to the development of spiritual systems, group
orientation, culturally valued artefacts and achievements, and
all the other trappings of culture through which we can
transcend our earthly bonds. “Just about anything that defines
us as uniquely human either emerged directly or subsequently
was co-opted to help us deal with that problem,” says Solomon.
It is comments like these that have raised the hackles of some
evolutionary anthropologists. They don’t doubt the results of
the experiments, but dispute their interpretation. The most
vocal opposition comes from Carlos David Navarrete and Daniel
Fessler of the University of California, Los Angeles, who
point out that evolutionary theory can already explain our
rich cultural life and our tendency to close ranks when we
feel threatened. We are ultra-social animals, they say, who
learn from those around us, and whose survival depends on
being good team players who can identify and conform with the
practices and values of our particular group. They argue that
it is not in our nature to be terrified by thoughts of death.
Instead, like any animal, we experience fear when faced with
specific threats such as snakes, heights or men wielding axes.
Fear has evolved for a purpose – it primes our bodies to
respond to immediate danger – which makes nonsense of the
notion that we have evolved mental mechanisms to suppress fear
and anxiety generally. “From an evolutionary perspective this
is quite implausible,” says Navarrete.
Conformism rules

To add weight to their arguments, Navarrete and Fessler have
done a series of experiments. They wanted to test the
prediction of evolutionary theory that we are likely to
identify most strongly with our own group in situations where
being part of a team is beneficial for survival. So, as well
as asking people to contemplate their mortality, the
anthropologists got them to think about being socially
isolated, having personal property stolen and needing support
for a community project. Sure enough, thinking about these
situations elicited the same responses as thinking about
mortality, with subjects reacting more favourably to members
of their own group and disparaging outsiders. What’s more,
when they carried out the same experiments in Costa Rica the
only situation that did not lead to these responses was
mortality salience.

Navarrete concludes that there is no special link between
death thoughts and our tendency to defend our particular world
view. Instead, he says, what the TMT advocates are seeing is
an example of individuals seeking to build coalitions in a
situation where group membership could help survival. And the
fact that Costa Ricans do not react in this way to death
thoughts indicates that the human instinct to rally to the
group is primed by different situations in different cultures.
Navarrete and Fessler hope that publication of their findings
will lead to a more informed debate in TMT circles. “These
people are brilliant experimentalists,” says Fessler, “but
they don’t understand evolution.”

Another evolutionary theorist, Nicholas Humphrey from the
London School of Economics, points out that if coming to
understand our mortality really was debilitating, natural
selection would have acted quickly to suppress the fear at
source. The TMT findings are intriguing and need explanation,
he says, but perhaps the story could be stood on its head.
“It’s not that nature created us to feel existential anxiety
and culture cured it; rather nature seems to have designed us
not to feel it, but culture does its level best to create it.”
Like Navarrete and Fessler, Humphrey points out that priests
and other figures of authority often try to instil fear as a
means of control.

Sure, some people in positions of power exploit our
existential anxiety, Greenberg admits. “But if the potential
for anxiety wasn’t already there this wouldn’t work!” Nor are
he and his colleagues fazed by the finding that people
affiliate with their particular group when faced with problems
where being part of a coalition can help. It doesn’t explain
why a reminder of mortality should elicit this response, they

Where does all this leave TMT? The underlying theory may be in
dispute, but nobody doubts that we do react in interesting
ways when confronted with death. And being able to predict
people’s behaviour in these situations has practical
implications in a world where war, violence and terrorism are
commonplace. Such threats may increase prejudice and
insularity, but other experiments show that if you first
remind people of the positive values of their social group,
mortality salience can encourage traits such as tolerance,
fairness and generosity. If nothing else, simply knowing that
certain responses are inevitable in the wake of another 9/11
could help maintain political stability.
Autor: Kate Douglas
Fuente: new

No Comments

Post a Comment