Mortality salience is a psychological state in which thoughts of one’s death are prominent, or salient, in the individual’s conscious mind. The concept was developed by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon in 1986 to test hypotheses derived from terror management theory. The theory proposes that the fear of death motivates people to maintain faith in cultural worldviews that makes life seem meaningful and to be enduringly significant contributors to that meaningful reality. In this way, people can believe they will endure beyond their own deaths; this belief in turn helps people control their terror of death.
Greenberg and his colleagues proposed that if the theory is correct, then increasing mortality salience should intensify people’s support of their own cultural worldview and striving for self-worth within the context of that worldview. Mortality may become salient in many natural contexts, including following acts of terrorism or war, natural disasters, reading or watching news or crime stories, witnessing automobile accidents, the death of a close friend or family member, or being in close proximity to a cemetery. The most common method to increase mortality salience in experiments is to ask participants to respond to the following: “Please describe the emotions the thought of your own death arouses in you”; and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead.”
The first study utilizing this mortality salience induction found that mortality salience led municipal court judges to recommend a much higher bond in a hypothetical prostitution case. This finding supports terror management theory because it shows that mortality salience encouraged the judges to uphold their worldview by punishing someone who violated the morals of that world-view. Subsequent studies found that mortality salience leads people to react positively to anyone who supports one’s worldview and negatively to anyone who violates it. Further research has found that mortality salience affects a wide range of judgments and behaviors that preserve faith in either one’s worldview or one’s self-esteem.
More than 200 studies have made mortality salient, using various methods and comparing mortality salience to many control conditions. Mortality salience has been increased by exposure to death anxiety questionnaires, gory accident videos, and proximity to funeral parlors and cemeteries. Control conditions have reminded participants of neutral topics and aversive topics such as failure, uncertainty, pain, and social exclusion. These findings have supported the specific role of thoughts about death in mortality salience effects.
Research exploring the cognitive processes activated by mortality salience has shown that mortality salience first leads people to distract themselves from thoughts of death. However, after a delay, thoughts of death return to the fringes of consciousness; this is when worldview and self-esteem–bolstering effects of mortality salience occur. Similar effects occur after exposure to very quick subliminal flashes of death-related words on a computer screen. These words appear for 28 milliseconds in between two easily visible neutral words. Because research participants are not aware of them, these briefly flashed words bring death thoughts close to consciousness without making mortality salient. This work suggests that the problem of death exerts its influence outside of conscious awareness.
Mortality salience research supports terror management theory and by so doing suggests that because of the need to control mortality concerns, naturally occurring reminders of death may contribute to nationalism, prejudice, and intergroup aggression, as well as pro-social behavior and valued cultural achievements.
SEE ALSO Self-Esteem; Terror Management Theory
Greenberg, Jeff, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski. 1986. The Causes and Consequences of a Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory. In Public Self and Private Self, ed. Roy F. Baumeister, 189–212. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Pyszczynski, Tom, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg. 2003. In the Wake of September 11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.