Now, you may disagree with the explanatory interpretations of terror management theorists, but the effects as demonstrated by these experiments—and many others like them—are very real. And psychologists have notoriously struggled to reinterpret such findings using alternative theoretical frameworks. In response to a commentary on some of my own research on people’s reasoning about death, I suggested that perhaps the (very large) body of findings demonstrated by terror management theory can be better understood in terms of inclusive genetic fitness. In human beings, reputation is especially important to reproductive success, and this includes the reputations of our biological kin. If one’s genetic relative (such as a parent or sibling) is seen as a social dissident, transgressor or otherwise a threat to the in-group, then this perception has negative consequences for the individual as well. (Just ask David Dahmer, Jeffrey’s younger brother. He’s changed his last name, his whereabouts are unknown, and he does his best to get by living in complete anonymity.) Thus, when thinking about death, participants may unconsciously “play up” their commitment to the in-group because it reminds them of their own death and the reputational legacy they will leave to their living relatives. But, admittedly, that’s just my hunch; I haven’t tested this counter hypothesis.
In any event, here at home in Northern Ireland—where there’s no shortage of mortality salience primes in recent days—I deliberately bought a house next to a cemetery so that I’d wake up to birds twilling on old tombstones and be happily reminded that life is short, spurring me along to get up and do something productive. (The fact that I’ve yet to do so is testament only to my remarkable inabilities.)
In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.