What is Terror Management Theory?

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Death is a natural, inevitable part of life.  It is no secret that some individuals are able to cope with death and mortality better than others.  Some people are able to easily accept the concept of death, while others tend to grapple and fear it for their entire life.  Terror management theory derives from the branches of evolutionary and social psychology and tries to explain how human thoughts and behaviors result from an awareness of death. 

The concept of terror management theory stemmed from the works of Ernest Becker, an anthropologist who wrote The Denial of Death in 1973.  Becker asserted that most human behaviors are employed as a way to either ignore or escape the inevitability of death.  Becker believed that the intense terror that results from the knowledge of certain death prompts a person to develop a deep psychological anxiety.  Becker went on to explain that this intense anxiety causes people to spend their entire lives processing and attempting to make sense of their inevitable death. 

Becker expanded on previous works from Freud, Kierkegaard, Brown, and Rank and replaced the Freudian concept that sexuality drives behavior with the concept that death is actually the primary motivator to human behavior.  Terror management theory was further developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski in their 2015 book, The Worm at the Core

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Terror management theory asserts that a psychological conflict occurs from a human’s innate instinct of self-preservation that is at odds with the knowledge that death is inevitable and random.  The theory proposes that this conflict results in feelings of terror, which is then managed by the formation of relationships with cultural groups to add meaning and value to a person’s life.  Religion and belief in the afterlife are examples of values that derive from culture to alleviate a person’s death anxiety.  Other cultural values serve to assure of immorality through symbolism, as people attempt to foster the sense that they are part of something larger that will live on past their death.  Society tends to use symbols, religion, culture, and beliefs to explain the overall importance and meaning of life, while self-esteem acts as a buffer to death-related anxiety. 

Terror management theory explains that anxiety about death prompts people to view the world in ways that protects their confidence, self-worth, and sustainability.  The theory discusses how these worldviews help individuals to believe that they have an important role in a world that has meaning.  Self-esteem is a central concept in terror management theory, as it attempts to fully explain the concept of self-esteem and its importance.  The theory explains that self-esteem is a coping mechanism to control a person’s anxiety about living a meaningless life before dying. 

Terror management theory further explains that people tend to develop important relationships within their own cultural and religious groups to maintain a sense of immortality.  These relationships help assure people that they will live on symbolically through larger systems after they pass on. Terror management theory postulates that human behaviors employed to ignore or evade death are actually related to an evolutionary perspective, as motivation always serves to ensure one’s own survival and the continued survival of their kind. 

Some psychologists oppose terror management theory and argue against it.  Opponents believe that knowledge of imminent death causes people to adopt practical responses to adapt to life situations and solve problems, instead of proponents who believe that people unconsciously attempt to evade these realizations.  Regardless of whether you are an advocate or an opponent to terror management theory, the fact always remains that different people are going to have different responses to death and mortality.  Some will be accepting of it, while others will spend their entire lives being fearful of it.

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.