Human beings have a degree of awareness of personal existence not found among other species. This awareness, the province of ordinary people as much as philosophers and theologians, encompasses the finitude of life, the personal existence of others, the possibility of other worlds, and the questions of when people came into the world, why they are on Earth, and what happens when they die. Asking these questions is motivated not merely by curiosity but also by the anguish inspired by the prospect of one's own death or that of a loved one.
The most powerful ontological confrontation occurs when facing the inevitability of one's own death, whether as an immediate reality or as an imagined, distant eventuality. How does one confront his or her own real death? In the highly developed countries, more people die a long and slow death (e.g., from cancer or from AIDS). People experience ever longer waits for life-saving surgery. Although little is known about how individuals cope with impending death, there does seem to be a common avoidance of ontological questions, even on the deathbed.
What about the anticipation of death? How does one confront the finite nature of life? These questions arise persistently in philosophy and literature. For example, psychotherapist Jeffrey Kauffman presented the philosophical perspective by editing the book Awareness of Mortality (1995). He stated that awareness of mortality is the alpha and omega of thanatology (where it starts from and where it is heading). But what are the consequences of this confrontation for the individual? There is various anectodal evidence but little in the way of systematic research. This question has, however, come under experimental scrutiny, and there are only a few areas of thanatology where results of experimental studies provide new insights. In everyday life, the idea of death may enter the mind many times a day even for individuals unconcerned with death. This kind of ontological confrontation can also take place in a laboratory, where researchers have discovered that the confrontation with death leads to cognitive reactions and to various emotional responses that can have positive or negative effects.
Consequences of Confrontation with Death
Existential philosophers and psychotherapists focus on the positive consequences of ontological confrontation. For example, Irvin Yalom emphasizes that the idea of death is a powerful agent of change. Facing one's own death is the highest challenge to the individual, potentially imparting greater intensity to life and even leading to a radical personal transformation. A literary example of this process is Leo Tolstoy's classical story "The Death of Ivan Ilych." Faced with imminent death, Ilych taps previously dormant resources of empathy for his family and friends, and his former fear of death is replaced by a fulfilling sense of well being. Working with cancer patients in a therapeutic group setting, Yalom has shown that cancer can heal psychoneurosis. It is astonishing that tragedies such as life-threatening illnesses or losses of significant others can be followed by an increase of personal maturity.
In his book Is There an Answer to Death, Peter Koestenbaum also wants to show the positive consequences of ontological confrontation by demonstrating that there are times when dealing with existential questions can bring a greater meaning to life. He argues that the anticipation of death reveals who one really is. Intellectually, death helps to define human nature and brings people into contact with their deepest feelings, needs, and opportunities.
According to Koestenbaum, anticipation of death can have the following ten consequences:
- By accepting the fact of being condemned to death, the individual can start living and thereby then neutralize fear.
- By recognizing death, the individual is on the way to becoming decisive.
- By remembering death, the individual concentrates on essentials.
- By being aware of death, the individual achieves integrity.
- Through knowing about death, the individual finds meaning in life.
- By recognizing death, the individual will become honest.
- Through the realization of death, the individual will gain strength.
- By accepting death, the individual is motivated to take charge of his or her own life.
- Through the thought of death, the individual is willing to assume a total plan for life.
- By being aware of death, the individual escapes the stranglehold of failure.
From an existential and phenomenological perspective, meditation on personal death is a precondition for achieving meaning and freedom of fear in everyday life. Adrian Tomer has shown, however, that other philosophical approaches contend that reflection on death does not necessarily confer meaning on life and that it is even questionable whether facing death is the best way to deal with the problem of death. The psychologist Patrick C. Thauberger and his colleagues used the construct labeled "avoidance of ontological confrontation" as the basis of an empirical study whose results challenge the notion that awareness is the answer to the problem of death. Individuals classified as "existential confronters" did report significantly more use of stimulants and soft drugs. Being that ontological confrontation is also negatively related to self-reported health and quality of life, it seems that one must pay a price when trying to face death. Confronters were no better off than "avoiders of the confrontation with death," who required a few agents (e.g., tranquilizers) of their own to deal with reality. Overall, the results suggest a rather complex network of relationships among avoidance/-confrontation strategies, various kinds of social behavior, and health-related variables.
There is also empirical evidence that ontological confrontation leads to changes of beliefs. Investigating the notion that belief in afterlife serves the function of helping the individual to deal with fear of death, Michael Osarchuk and Sherman Tatz selected subjects scoring high and low on a belief-in-afterlife scale and exposed them to stimuli designed to arouse fear of death, to the threat of being shocked, or to a nonthreatening task. Comparing the scores on an alternate belief-in-afterlife scale, only the high believers exposed to death threat intensified their belief that there is a life after death. Data obtained by Randolph Ochsmann, however, does not support this notion because strengthening belief-in-afterlife was not accompanied by lower scores of anxiety. With highly religious subjects, confrontation with death did not intensify this belief. The low religionists, however, showed even less of an inclination to believe in an afterlife and intensified their hedonistic preferences.
The consequences of ontological confrontation can be discerned empirically. In one experimental study, Christian subjects either considered or not considered the question of their own death, and were then asked to rate target persons on an interpersonal attraction scale. Ontological confrontation caused them on the one hand to rate a target peron significantly more favorable who was presented as a fellow Christian, that is an ingroup member. On the other hand, thinking of their own death led to much less favorable ratings of target persons who were presented as Jews, that is outgroup members. The same pattern was found in a second study when subjects rated target persons who either held very similar or very dissimilar attitudes. Thus it seems that mortality salience leads to more negative evaluations of outgroup members and those who criticize one's culture. It provokes harsher punishment for moral transgressors and increased aggression against those who challenge one's beliefs. Another study has shown that for individuals for whom driving ability is a barometer of self-esteem, mortality salience leads to increased risk-taking while driving and while driving in a simulator task.
Results of experimental studies cannot be applied directly to everyday life, of course. Most likely, there are psychological factors that will weaken the effects of mortality salience. But it cannot be ruled out that other interactive forces will lead to an increase of negative consequences, for example, and even stronger favoritism of ingroup members and discrimination of outgroup members. Nonetheless, reported results do raise some serious questions.
For example, it seems necessary to discuss the situation of individuals who care for the terminally ill. Basic fears of death caused by the salience of mortality are prominent among caregivers. While attending to the dying, professional and nonprofessional helpers sometimes fend off their fears, but this defensive repression is less successful when confrontation with death is very frequent. Does mortality salience contribute to emotional exhaustion and depersonalization "burnout"? Knowing that ontological confrontation will lead to greater anxiety among individuals with low self-esteem, one should reconsider demands of institutional caregivers who are expected to subordinate their own psychological well-being to that of the patient. Professional helpers themselves should be more sensitive to their own "terror management" to improve interaction with the terminally ill and persons who suffer severe loss. Discrepancies between the altruistic motivations of caregivers and their actual behavior might well be linked to low self-esteem and the necessity of defensive reactions. Considering the potentially negative consequences of ontological confrontation, death-education programs should receive much more attention.
Research also indicates that mortality salience may lead to hostile reactions toward "outsiders," members of other cultures who might present a threat to the individuals' self-esteem, especially in homogeneous cultures that do not prize diversity. Under such conditions, hostility toward foreigners might increase proportionately with the anxiety arising from confronting death. It might not be accidental that far-right groups often stage meetings at cemeteries to honor so-called heroes, and publicly wear death symbols (e.g., skulls and cross-bones). The individual's fundamentally defensive need to protect himself from anxiety must therefore be incorporated into programs developed to fight intolerance, racism, and xenophobia.
There is evidence that mortality salience has an effect on intentionally risky behavior such as unsafe sex, extreme sports, which is a growing problem in advanced industrial societies. Among adolescents and young adults, car accidents are one of the most common causes of death. Appeals to fear evidently do not work when the self-esteem of a person is linked to driving or other kinds of risky behaviors. On the contrary, people may be motivated to take even greater risks after confronting death.
Robert Kastenbaum has discussed the negative consequences of ontolological confrontation in the context of possible links between terror management and some major social problems, such as murder, suicide, alcohol, and drugs. What happens when there is no management of terror? What happens when there is neither individual self-esteem nor a cultural belief system to defend against death anxiety? There is ample reason to doubt that contemporary industrialized cultures are fostering a meaningful conception of reality that instills self-esteem and hence respect for the humanity of others inside and outside the culture.
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