Terror Management Theory

views updated Jun 11 2018

Terror Management Theory

While self-preservation is common to all species, the awareness of one's own mortality characterizes only human beings. This awareness presents a difficult problem for humans: how to manage the terror that accompanies this type of knowledge. According to proponents of terror management theory (TMT) the need for "terror management" is indeed a fundamental motivation of people as well as a main function of cultural systems. Building on the anthropologist Ernest Becker's writings, TMT explains a large variety of human behaviors, such as intolerance vis-à-vis others, by relating these behaviors to the basic motivation to protect oneself against mortality awareness.


Terror management theory was developed by the researchers Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski based on Ernest Becker's writings, in which the universality of death terror and the need to protect against it play an essential role. Psychologically, the protective function is accomplished via a cultural anxiety buffer that has two components. One component consists of the individual's conception of the cultural worldview and the faith one has in this worldview. The second component involves a sense of personal worth or self-esteem that is attained by believing that one is living up to the cultural system's standards of values.

The need for defense is particularly high when one is reminded of his or her mortality (mortality salience is increased) and when one's cultural system is threatened. In those cases one can expect negative reactions against those who are considered to embody the threat, such as individuals who belong to a different group, known as "outgroupers," and positive reactions toward those who represent the cultural values, typically "ingroupers." This implication of TMT was labeled the mortality salience hypothesis. A second implication, the anxiety-buffer hypothesis, states that strengthening the anxiety-buffer, for example boosting a person's self-esteem, should reduce this person's death anxiety.

Experimental Work

Numerous studies have provided supportive evidence for the mortality salience hypothesis. Reminding people of their own mortality was shown to increase their inclination to respond favorably to people who bolster their worldviews and to respond negatively to people who are different from theman effect that was found in adults and also in children as young as age eleven. In these various studies death salience was achieved in a variety of ways, by asking people to imagine their own death, filling out death anxiety scales, or having them visit a funeral home or watch a fatal car accident. Negative stimuli included violators of moral principles, such as prostitutes, out-groupers such as Jews and anti-American foreigners, or inappropriate use of cherished cultural symbols such as a flag or a crucifix. Generally, reminding people of their own mortality made them less tolerant vis-à-vis those stimuli. Liberally oriented respondents, however, became more tolerant toward a conservative target after being reminded of their own mortality. This apparent exception can be explained, however, based on the fact that tolerance is an important value for liberal individuals. They will tend, therefore, to emphasize this value more when death becomes more salient for them.

The work conducted as of 2002 on the anxiety-buffer hypothesis also supported TMT. In 1993, for example, the scholar Jeff Greenberg and colleagues found that positive personality feedback made people less inclined to deny the possibility that they may have a relatively short life expectancy.

Criticisms and Extensions of Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory was criticized for a variety of reasons. Experimental findings, such as increased intolerance toward out-groupers following reminders of death, can be explained using alternative theories. Thus the scholar C. R. Snyder suggests an interpretation based on the motivation to achieve control. Other criticisms were directed at the scope of TMT and at its claim to represent a general theory of motivation that provides an over-arching explanation to a multitude of social motives. It was argued that either those human motives are not hierarchically arranged or that the hierarchy is not the one proposed by TMTwith terror management at the top. Even more drastically, some contended that death anxiety plays usually only a minor role in individual's behavior in everyday life.

An area of particular difficulty for TMT is the area of death anxiety in older age. Older adults appear to accept death more than younger adults, the opposite of what would be expected on the basis of considerations of death salience. Moreover, self-esteem may decline with increased age and, as a result, the use of it as a protective buffer may become more difficult. There is a need, therefore, to specify other protective mechanisms such as self-transcendence.

In addition, human creativity, growth, and genuine acceptance of death cannot be explained easily by TMT. For this reason TMT theorists have recently proposed a theory of growth that should complement TMT. The individual is striving not only to protect oneself against the terror associated with death awareness but, in addition, to develop and expand. Between the two motivations, to grow and to protect, there is a dynamic balance. Growth is also likely to engender awareness of one's limitations and, therefore, to make one more susceptible to death terror. On the other hand, the same growth, via creation of meaning, provides the means to deal with the terror.

Practical Implications and Evaluation

TMT connects fear of death to behaviors that appear to be conceptually very distant from death and dying, for example to prejudice and intolerance toward strangers. By doing this, the theory provides a useful tool for self-understanding. A good understanding of both the importance of death anxiety as a main motivation, and of the ways to protect against it, can allow one to achieve a double goal: defense against anxiety but not at the price of becoming intolerant toward others. From a theoretical viewpoint, it seems that TMT had to moderate somewhat its claims of being the fundamental theory of social motivation. This has been done both by recognizing the need to invoke other (expansive) motives, and by recognizing that mechanisms other than the one incorporated in the anxiety buffer may be used in dealing with one's awareness of mortality. Terror management theory can be viewed as a way to explain how the construction of meaning achieved by individuals within a culture fulfills the double function of protecting against fear of death and allowing, at the same time, creative expansion and development.

See also: Anxiety and Fear; Becker, Ernest


Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.

Florian, Victor, and Mario Mikulincer. "Terror Management Theory in Childhood: Does Death Conceptualization Moderate the Effects of Mortality Salience on Acceptance of Similar and Different Others?" Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24 (1998):11041112.

Greenberg, Jeff, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. "Evidence of a Terror Management Function of Cultural Icons: The Effects of Mortality Salience on the Inappropriate Use of Cherished Cultural Symbols." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21 (1995):12211228.

Greenberg, Jeff, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. "The Causes and Consequences of a Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory." In Roy F. Baumeister ed., Public Self and Private Self. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986.

Greenberg, Jeff, et al. "Towards a Dual Motive Depth Psychology of Self and Social Behavior." In Michael Kernis ed., Self-Efficacy and Self-Regulation. New York: Plenum, 1995.

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Greenberg, Jeff, et al. "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 (1990):308318.

McCoy, Shannon K., et al. "Transcending the Self: A Terror Management Perspective on Successful Aging." In Adrian Tomer ed., Death Attitudes and the Older Adult. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis, 2000.

Muraven, Mark, and Roy F. Baumeister. "Suicide, Sex, Terror, Paralysis, and Other Pitfalls of Reductionist Self-Preservation Theory." Psychological Inquiry 8 (1997):3640.

Pelham, Brett W. "Human Motivation Has Multiple Roots." Psychological Inquiry 8 (1997):4447.

Pyszczynski, Tom, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon. "Why Do We Need What We Need? A Terror Management Perspective on the Roots of Human Social Motivation." Psychological Inquiry 8 (1997):120.

Rosenblatt, Abram, et al. "Evidence for Terror Management Theory I: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Violate or Uphold Cultural Values." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (1989):681690.

Snyder, C. R. "Control and Application of Occam's Razor to Terror Management Theory." Psychological Inquiry 8 (1997):4849.


Terror Management Theory

views updated May 29 2018

Terror Management Theory


Terror management theory (TMT; Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski 1991) was derived from the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (19241974), who in such books as The Birth and Death of Meaning (1962), The Denial of Death (1973), and Escape from Evil (1975) argued that the uniquely human awareness of death underlies a substantial proportion of human behavior. TMT posits that although human beings share with all life-forms a biological propensity toward survival, humans are unique in their awareness of the inevitability of death, that death can occur at any time, and that we are corporeal creatures no more important or enduring than barnacles, beets, and beavers. To assuage the potentially paralyzing terror engendered by this knowledge, humans embed themselves in cultural worldviews: humanly constructed beliefs shared by individuals in groups that provide a sense of meaning and significance and promises of symbolic and literal immortality to those who adhere to the standards of value prescribed by their culture.

While cultures vary considerably, they share the same defensive psychological function: to provide meaning and value and in so doing bestow psychological equanimity in the face of death. All cultural worldviews can ultimately be viewed as shared fictions, in the sense that none of them are likely to be literally true, and their existence is generally sustained by social consensus. Individuals surrounded by people believing the same things as themselves can be quite confident of the veracity of their beliefs. However, when one encounters people with different beliefs, this is posited to pose a challenge to ones death-denying belief systems; TMT proposes that this challenge is a primary reason that people are generally quite uncomfortable around, and hostile toward, those who are different. Additionally, because no symbolic cultural construction can actually overcome the physical reality of death, residual anxiety might well be unconsciously projected onto other groups of individuals as scapegoats, who are designated all-encompassing repositories of evil. Thus, responses to people with different beliefs might be to scapegoat them or berate them, or try to convert them to ones own system of beliefs. In some instances, these dynamics might well lead to terrorism, war, and killing.

Empirical support for TMT (see Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski [2004] for a recent review) has been obtained in over two hundred experiments, primarily by demonstrating that reminders of death (mortality salience) instigate cultural worldview defense. For example, after a mortality salience induction, Christian participants reminded of death liked fellow Christians more and Jewish people less, Germans sat further away from a Turkish person and closer to a fellow German, and people were more physically aggressive toward someone with different political beliefs. Research conducted after September 11, 2001, demonstrated that reminders of death or the events of 9/11 increased Americans support for President George W. Bush and his policies in Iraq and conservative Americans support for the use of nuclear and chemical weapons in preemptive military strikes. Additionally, Iranians reminded of death were more supportive of suicide bombers and more willing to engage in martyrdom actions.

Most recently, TMT theorists have been devising ways to minimize or eliminate the adverse effects of death denial while exploring how confrontations with mortality can elicit what is most noble in the human animal.

SEE ALSO Anxiety; Salience, Mortality; Self-System; Terror


Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. 1991. A Terror Management Theory of Social Behavior: The Psychological Functions of Self-Esteem and Cultural Worldviews. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 24, ed. Mark Zanna, 93159. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. 2004. The Cultural Animal: Twenty Years of Terror Management Theory and Research. In Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology, eds. Jeff Greenberg, Sander L. Koole, and To m Pyszczynski, 1334. New York: Guilford Press.

Sheldon Solomon

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