Sheldon Solomon is a professor of psychology at Skidmore College. He has spent the last few decades studying how thoughts of death can powerfully influence our decisions and judgments. He and Jonah Lehrer, the editor of Mind Matters, discuss what this phenomenon can teach us about the upcoming election.
LEHRER: What is terror management theory?
SOLOMON: Terror management theory (TMT) is derived from cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s efforts to explain the motivational underpinnings of human behavior. According to TMT, one defining characteristic of human beings is self-awareness: we’re alive and we know it. Although self-awareness gives rise to unbridled awe and joy, it can also lead to the potentially overwhelming dread engendered by the realization that death is inevitable, that it can occur for reasons that can never be anticipated or controlled, and that humans are corporeal creatures—breathing pieces of defecating meat no more significant or enduring than porcupines or peaches.
TMT posits that humans ingeniously, but quite unconsciously, solved this existential dilemma by developing cultural worldviews: humanly constructed beliefs about reality shared by individuals in a group that serve to “manage” the potentially paralyzing terror resulting from the awareness of death. All cultures provide a sense of meaning by offering an account of the origin of the universe, a blueprint for acceptable conduct on Earth, and a promise of immortality (symbolically, by creation of large monuments, great works of art or science, amassing great fortunes, having children; and literally, through the various kinds of afterlives that are a central feature of organized religions) to those who live up to culturally prescribed standards.
Thus, although cultures vary considerably, they share in common the same defensive psychological function: to provide meaning and value and in so doing bestow psychological equanimity in the face of death.
LEHRER: What first got you interested in TMT?
SOLOMON: I stumbled on Becker’s books in 1980 wandering around the library in my first year as a professor at Skidmore College. I found Becker’s ideas compelling and provocative. So did my graduate school colleagues Jeff Greenberg (now at the University of Arizona) and Tom Pyszczynski (now at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs). Most academics at the time rejected these ideas on the grounds that, having been derived from an existential psychodynamic perspective, they could not be tested. Jeff, Tom and I consequently developed TMT to frame Becker’s ideas in a manner that enabled them to be subjected to empirical scrutiny.
LEHRER: How does this theory relate to mortality salience (MS)? And what's an experimental example of mortality salience at work?
SOLOMON: A large body of evidence shows that momentarily making death salient, typically by asking people to think about themselves dying, intensifies people’s strivings to protect and bolster aspects of their worldviews, and to bolster their self-esteem. The most common finding is that MS increases positive reactions to those who share cherished aspects of one’s cultural worldview, and negative reactions toward those who violate cherished cultural values or are merely different.
Our first experiment was conducted with 22 municipal court judges in Tucson, Ariz. We told the judges we were studying the relation between personality traits, attitudes and bond decisions. A bond is a sum of money a defendant pays prior to trial to be released from prison in the interim. The judges completed a set of questionnaires consisting of some standard personality assessment instruments. Embedded in the personality assessments were two questions designed to trigger mortality salience: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” Only half of the judges were randomly given these questions to answer.