Terror Management Theory
While self-preservation is common to all species, the awareness of one's own mortality characterizes only human beings. This awareness presents a difficult problem for humans: how to manage the terror that accompanies this type of knowledge. According to proponents of terror management theory (TMT) the need for "terror management" is indeed a fundamental motivation of people as well as a main function of cultural systems. Building on the anthropologist Ernest Becker's writings, TMT explains a large variety of human behaviors, such as intolerance vis-à-vis others, by relating these behaviors to the basic motivation to protect oneself against mortality awareness.
Terror management theory was developed by the researchers Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski based on Ernest Becker's writings, in which the universality of death terror and the need to protect against it play an essential role. Psychologically, the protective function is accomplished via a cultural anxiety buffer that has two components. One component consists of the individual's conception of the cultural worldview and the faith one has in this worldview. The second component involves a sense of personal worth or self-esteem that is attained by believing that one is living up to the cultural system's standards of values.
The need for defense is particularly high when one is reminded of his or her mortality (mortality salience is increased) and when one's cultural system is threatened. In those cases one can expect negative reactions against those who are considered to embody the threat, such as individuals who belong to a different group, known as "outgroupers," and positive reactions toward those who represent the cultural values, typically "ingroupers." This implication of TMT was labeled the mortality salience hypothesis. A second implication, the anxiety-buffer hypothesis, states that strengthening the anxiety-buffer, for example boosting a person's self-esteem, should reduce this person's death anxiety.
Numerous studies have provided supportive evidence for the mortality salience hypothesis. Reminding people of their own mortality was shown to increase their inclination to respond favorably to people who bolster their worldviews and to respond negatively to people who are different from them—an effect that was found in adults and also in children as young as age eleven. In these various studies death salience was achieved in a variety of ways, by asking people to imagine their own death, filling out death anxiety scales, or having them visit a funeral home or watch a fatal car accident. Negative stimuli included violators of moral principles, such as prostitutes, out-groupers such as Jews and anti-American foreigners, or inappropriate use of cherished cultural symbols such as a flag or a crucifix. Generally, reminding people of their own mortality made them less tolerant vis-à-vis those stimuli. Liberally oriented respondents, however, became more tolerant toward a conservative target after being reminded of their own mortality. This apparent exception can be explained, however, based on the fact that tolerance is an important value for liberal individuals. They will tend, therefore, to emphasize this value more when death becomes more salient for them.
The work conducted as of 2002 on the anxiety-buffer hypothesis also supported TMT. In 1993, for example, the scholar Jeff Greenberg and colleagues found that positive personality feedback made people less inclined to deny the possibility that they may have a relatively short life expectancy.
Criticisms and Extensions of Terror Management Theory
Terror management theory was criticized for a variety of reasons. Experimental findings, such as increased intolerance toward out-groupers following reminders of death, can be explained using alternative theories. Thus the scholar C. R. Snyder suggests an interpretation based on the motivation to achieve control. Other criticisms were directed at the scope of TMT and at its claim to represent a general theory of motivation that provides an over-arching explanation to a multitude of social motives. It was argued that either those human motives are not hierarchically arranged or that the hierarchy is not the one proposed by TMT—with terror management at the top. Even more drastically, some contended that death anxiety plays usually only a minor role in individual's behavior in everyday life.
An area of particular difficulty for TMT is the area of death anxiety in older age. Older adults appear to accept death more than younger adults, the opposite of what would be expected on the basis of considerations of death salience. Moreover, self-esteem may decline with increased age and, as a result, the use of it as a protective buffer may become more difficult. There is a need, therefore, to specify other protective mechanisms such as self-transcendence.
In addition, human creativity, growth, and genuine acceptance of death cannot be explained easily by TMT. For this reason TMT theorists have recently proposed a theory of growth that should complement TMT. The individual is striving not only to protect oneself against the terror associated with death awareness but, in addition, to develop and expand. Between the two motivations, to grow and to protect, there is a dynamic balance. Growth is also likely to engender awareness of one's limitations and, therefore, to make one more susceptible to death terror. On the other hand, the same growth, via creation of meaning, provides the means to deal with the terror.
Practical Implications and Evaluation
TMT connects fear of death to behaviors that appear to be conceptually very distant from death and dying, for example to prejudice and intolerance toward strangers. By doing this, the theory provides a useful tool for self-understanding. A good understanding of both the importance of death anxiety as a main motivation, and of the ways to protect against it, can allow one to achieve a double goal: defense against anxiety but not at the price of becoming intolerant toward others. From a theoretical viewpoint, it seems that TMT had to moderate somewhat its claims of being the fundamental theory of social motivation. This has been done both by recognizing the need to invoke other (expansive) motives, and by recognizing that mechanisms other than the one incorporated in the anxiety buffer may be used in dealing with one's awareness of mortality. Terror management theory can be viewed as a way to explain how the construction of meaning achieved by individuals within a culture fulfills the double function of protecting against fear of death and allowing, at the same time, creative expansion and development.
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