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Scared of death?

Alexandre Cabanel’s classic, The Death of Moses.

It may seem morbid, but the fear of death may affect much of our decision making, regardless of whether or not we are aware of it. A group of three psychologists – Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski and Jeff Greenberg – have developed the theory of terror management, inspired by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. They’ve elaborated on the idea that people form mental defenses to avoid the fear of death. To cope with this fear, they argue, we usually turn to our culture and belief systems to validate our purpose.

In order to build more evidence for this theory, Solomon, Pyszczynski and Greenberg have conducted multiple studies, one of which involved a group of municipal court judges. One group acted as a control, and the other group filled out a questionnaire asking about their thoughts on their own mortality. Then, they were shown a court case of an alleged prostitute and asked how much bail they would set. The control group gave a standard amount of around $50, but surprisingly, the other group had set a bail of roughly $455.

Another study had people think about mortality or something unpleasant. When they were shown a newspaper article of a citizen stopping a bank robbery, the control group suggested that the citizen should receive a monetary reward of around $1,000, while the experimental group averaged over $3,000. Essentially, when people are confronted with thoughts of mortality, they turn to their beliefs and cultural influences, support those who share similar beliefs, and serve justice on those who differ.

Fear of death also influences our self esteem. A study on Israeli soldiers found that when placed in a driving simulation, while the control group drove at a standard pace, within the group that was reminded of death, those whose self esteem was based on their driving skills ended up driving more recklessly. Another study involved individuals who played basketball. It found that when reminded of death, players would shoot better at the foul line. And yet another study directed at those who had pride in their strength showed that when they were given something to squeeze and reminded of death, they tended to squeeze harder. 

As dark as it may seem, recognizing the concept of mortality may increase one’s self awareness and help one navigate life with more maturity.

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