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Terror management theory

Terror management theory (TMT) is a psychological perspective that proposes that humans are motivated by the awareness of their own mortality and the potential for anxiety that arises from it. TMT suggests that people cope with the existential threat of death by adhering to cultural world-views that provide meaning, order, and stability, and by seeking or maintaining self-esteem as a symbolic buffer against mortality salience. It also predicts that when people are confronted with reminders of death, they will defend their world-views and self-esteem more vigorously, and may react negatively to those who challenge or threaten them. TMT has been applied to various domains of human behaviour, such as prejudice, aggression, politics, religion, morality, and creativity. In this article, we will review the concepts of terror management theory and understand how it applies in various domains.

Concepts and history of terror management theory

Terror management theory (TMT) is a psychological framework that explains how humans cope with the existential threat of death. TMT was proposed by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski in 1986, based on the ideas of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker.

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According to TMT, humans have a basic need for self-preservation, but they also realize that death is inevitable and unpredictable. This creates a potential for terror, which is reduced by adopting cultural world-views that provide meaning, value, and immortality. Cultural world-views are shared beliefs about reality that help people make sense of their existence and mortality. They can include religious, political, national, or ideological beliefs that offer literal or symbolic immortality. Literal immortality refers to the belief in an afterlife or a soul that transcends physical death. Symbolic immortality refers to the belief that one can achieve lasting significance through one’s actions, achievements, offspring, or group membership.

TMT suggests that self-esteem is a personal indicator of how well one is living up to one’s cultural world-view. By fulfilling the standards and values of one’s world-view, one can attain a sense of self-worth and reduce death anxiety. However, when one’s world-view is threatened or challenged by others who hold different beliefs, this can also trigger death anxiety and defensive reactions. It proposes that people cope with these threats by either affirming their own world-view, derogating or avoiding those who threaten it, or seeking alternative sources of self-esteem. TMT has been supported by a large body of empirical evidence from various disciplines and domains. TMT research has examined how mortality salience (the awareness of death) affects various aspects of human behaviour, such as prejudice, aggression, conformity, creativity, altruism, risk-taking, health, politics, religion, and art. It has also been applied to understand social phenomena such as terrorism, war, genocide, martyrdom, and heroism. TMT is a comprehensive and influential theory that has contributed to the understanding of human motivation and social behaviour in the face of death.

The empirical evidence supporting TMT

TMT has been supported by a large body of empirical evidence from various domains of social psychology, such as implicit social cognition, prejudice, aggression, conformity, and health behaviour. Some examples of the empirical evidence that supports TMT are:

Death-thought accessibility (DTA) studies: These studies measure the extent to which thoughts of death are activated in the mind after a mortality salience (MS) manipulation, such as writing about one’s own death or being exposed to death-related stimuli. DTA studies have proven that MS increases the accessibility of death-related thoughts, as measured by word-stem completion tasks, lexical decision tasks, or subliminal priming tasks. DTA is considered to be an indicator of the extent to which individuals are motivated to engage in terror management defences after MS (Hayes et al., 2010).

World-view defence studies: These studies examine how MS affects individuals’ attitudes and behaviours toward people or groups that either support or threaten their cultural world-views. World-view defence studies have indicated that MS increases positive evaluations of those who share one’s world-view and negative evaluations of those who challenge or violate it. For example, MS has been found to increase patriotism, religious conviction, prejudice, stereotyping, aggression, and conformity to social norms (Greenberg et al., 1986).

self-esteem enhancement studies: These studies investigate how MS influences individuals’ efforts to boost or maintain their self-esteem. self-esteem enhancement studies have proven that MS increases the pursuit of self-esteem sources, such as personal achievements, social comparisons, or positive feedback. MS also increases the sensitivity to self-esteem threats, such as failure, criticism, or rejection. Moreover, MS enhances the buffering effect of self-esteem against anxiety and physiological arousal (Greenberg et al., 1986).

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These examples illustrate how TMT provides a comprehensive framework for understanding how humans cope with the existential dilemma of being mortal beings with a capacity for self-awareness.

Implications of terror management theory

TMT has been applied to explain various phenomena related to religion, politics, war, genocide, martyrdom, and heroism.

For example, TMT suggests that religion can serve as a buffer against existential anxiety by providing a coherent and comforting belief system that promises immortality and moral guidance. However, religion can also fuel intergroup conflict and violence when people perceive their religious beliefs to be challenged or threatened by others who hold different or incompatible beliefs.

Similarly, TMT proposes that politics can be a way of expressing and validating one’s cultural world-view and identity, as well as a means of achieving social recognition and esteem. However, politics can also trigger hostility and intolerance toward those who belong to different or opposing political groups or ideologies.

TMT also argues that war can be seen as a collective response to existential threat, as well as a way of demonstrating one’s courage and heroism in the face of death. However, war can also result in massive destruction and suffering, as well as rationalize genocide and atrocities against perceived enemies or out-groups.

In addition, TMT explains that martyrdom and heroism can be motivated by the desire to transcend one’s mortality and achieve symbolic immortality through sacrifice or altruism. However, martyrdom and heroism can also involve self-deception and fanaticism, as well as justify violence and extremism for a higher cause or value.

Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about TMT, here are some weblinks for further reading:

Terror management theory – Wikipedia: This is a comprehensive overview of the history, concepts, empirical evidence, and criticisms of TMT.

Terror Management Theory | Psychology Today: This is a brief introduction to TMT and its implications for human thinking and behaviour.

Terror Management Theory: History, Belief, and More – Psych Central: This is a concise summary of TMT and its applications to various domains of life.

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