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Psychology Terror Management Theory
by
Sheldon Solomon

Introduction

Terror management theory posits that the juxtaposition of an inclination toward self-preservation with the highly developed intellectual abilities that make humans aware of their vulnerabilities and inevitable death creates the potential for paralyzing terror. One of the most important functions of cultural worldviews is to manage the terror engendered by death awareness. This is accomplished primarily through the cultural mechanism of self-esteem, which consists of the belief that one is a valuable contributor to a meaningful universe, and hence eligible for literal and/or symbolic immortality. Effective terror management requires, first, faith in a meaningful conception of reality (the cultural worldview), and second, belief that one is meeting the standards of value prescribed by that worldview (self-esteem). Because of the protection from the potential for terror that these psychological structures afford, people are motivated to maintain faith in their cultural worldviews and satisfy the standards of value associated with them.

General Overviews

Terror management theory is derived from work by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. Becker 1971 argues that humans are fundamentally motivated to obtain and maintain self-esteem by meeting or exceeding cultural standards of value. The primary function of self-esteem is to buffer anxiety, which humans are especially prone to, given their profound immaturity and dependence at birth. Becker 1973 proposes that all human anxiety is ultimately a manifestation of the fear of death, which “haunts the human animal like nothing else” and “is a mainspring of human activity.” Becker 1975 explains the role of death anxiety in prejudice and violence. Specifically, because cultural worldviews are symbolic constructions, the mere existence of people with different beliefs is psychologically unsettling because accepting the validity of an alternative conception of reality undermines confidence in one’s own cultural worldview, and thus unleashes the anxiety ordinarily mitigated by that worldview. Additionally, symbolic cultural worldviews can never completely eradicate death fears, which are repressed and then projected onto designated hate objects (scapegoats) that are viewed as evil incarnate; ironically, then, most evil in the world is undertaken in order to rid the world of evil. Greenberg, et al. 1986 is the first published description of terror management theory. Solomon, et al. 1991 is the first complete formal statement of the theory to include epistemological assumptions. Solomon, et al. 1998 and Pyszczynski, et al. 2003 are presentations of terror management theory for more general (i.e., interdisciplinary and undergraduate) readers.

  • Becker, Ernest. 1971. The birth and death of meaning: An interdisciplinary perspective on the problem of man. 2d ed. New York: Free Press.

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    An interdisciplinary analysis of the motivational underpinnings of human behavior, with particular emphasis on the fundamental need for self-esteem.

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  • Becker, Ernest. 1973. The denial of death. New York: Free Press.

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    Pulitzer Prize–winning book that describes how the awareness of death, and denial thereof, underlie a substantial proportion of human activity.

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  • Becker, Ernest. 1975. Escape from evil. New York: Free Press.

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    Explains how efforts to rid the world of evil cause most of the evil in the world.

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  • Greenberg, Jeff, Thomas Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. 1986. The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In Public self and private self. Edited by Roy F. Baumeister, 189–212. New York: Springer.

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    First published account of terror management theory based on the original presentation of the theory at the 1984 meeting of the Society for Experimental Social Psychology.

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  • Pyszczynski, Thomas, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg. 2003. In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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    Accessible account of terror management theory with specific attention to understanding the causes and consequences of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

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  • Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg, and Thomas Pyszczynski. 1991. A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 24. Edited by M. P. Zanna, 93–159. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

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    First complete formal statement of terror management theory including epistemological assumptions and proposal for an experimental existential psychology.

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  • Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg, and Thomas Pyszczynski. 1998. Tales from the crypt: On the role of death in life. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 33.1: 9–43.

    DOI: 10.1111/0591-2385.1241998124Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Good introduction to terror management theory for undergraduates and interdisciplinary scholars.

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Basic Research

General summaries of basic terror management theory research can be found in Greenberg, et al. 1997; Solomon, et al. 2004; and Greenberg, et al. 2008. This research was conducted to test hypotheses derived from central tenets of terror management theory: that self-esteem serves to buffer anxiety; that cultural worldviews serve a death-denying function; that reminders of death (mortality salience) increase self-esteem striving; that high self-esteem reduces defensive responses to death reminders; that there exist cognitive and neuroanatomical underpinnings of defensive reactions to mortality salience; and that undermining self-esteem or confidence in one’s cultural worldview brings unconscious death thoughts more readily to mind.

  • Greenberg, Jeff, Sheldon Solomon, and Jamie Arndt. 2008. A basic but uniquely human motivation: Terror management. In Handbook of motivation science. Edited by James Y. Shah and Wendi L. Gardner, 114–134. New York: Guilford.

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    Most recent general summary of terror management research.

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  • Greenberg, Jeff, Sheldon Solomon, and Thomas Pyszczynski. 1997. Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 29. Edited by M. P. Zanna, 61–139. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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    Summary of empirical support for the original tenets of terror management theory and conceptual refinements of the theory in light of unexpected findings.

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  • Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg, and Thomas Pyszczynski. 2004. The cultural animal: Twenty years of terror management theory and research. In Handbook of experimental existential psychology. Edited by Jeff Greenberg, Sander L. Koole, and Thomas Pyszczynski, 13–34. New York: Guilford.

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    Summarizes two decades of terror management theory research.

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Architecture of Terror Management

Pyszczynski, et al. 1999 proposes a dual-process theory to explicate the nature of the cognitive processes that underlie cultural worldview defense in response to mortality salience. Distinct defensive responses are activated by thoughts of death that are conscious and those that are on the fringes of consciousness (i.e., highly accessible but not in current focal attention). Proximal defenses entail suppressing death-related thoughts or pushing the problem of death into the distant future by denying one’s vulnerability to various risk factors. These defenses are rational and threat-focused, and are activated when thoughts of death are in current conscious attention. Distal terror management defenses entail maintaining self-esteem and faith in one’s cultural worldview and serve to control the potential for anxiety resulting from awareness of the inevitability of death. These defenses are not related to the problem of death in any semantic or rational way, and are increasingly activated as the accessibility of death-related thoughts increases, up to the point at which such thoughts enter consciousness and proximal threat-focused defenses are initiated. In support of this dual-process conception, Greenberg, et al. 2000 demonstrates that immediately after a mortality salience induction, people engage in proximal defenses (vulnerability-denying defensive distortions) but do not show evidence of distal defense (exaggerated regard and disdain for similar and dissimilar others, respectively); and, as expected, distal defense was obtained after a delay, but proximal defenses were not. Additionally, Greenberg, et al. 1994 shows that defense of the cultural worldview does not occur when mortality is highly salient, or when people are forced to keep thoughts of death in their consciousness following a typical mortality salience induction, and Arndt, et al. 1997b demonstrates that the accessibility of death-related thoughts is low immediately following mortality salience as a result of an active suppression of such thoughts, and that a delayed increase in the accessibility of death-related thoughts (presumably from relaxation of the suppression) is responsible for the delayed appearance of cultural worldview defense. Arndt, et al. 1997a shows that heightened accessibility of death-related thoughts is a necessary and sufficient condition to produce worldview defense following mortality salience. Arndt, et al. 2004 summarizes this work and subsequent research in this area. Han, et al. 2010 and Quirin, et al. 2011 use functional magnetic resonance imaging (F-MRI) to show that thinking about death has unique neuroanatomical consequences above and beyond negative events in general.

  • Arndt, Jamie, Alison Cook, and Clay Routledge. 2004. The blueprint of terror management: Understanding the cognitive architecture of psychological defense against the awareness of death. In Handbook of experimental existential psychology. Edited by Sander L. Koole, 37–54. New York: Guilford.

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    Nice summary of theory and research on the cognitive processes that underlie mortality salience effects. Available online.

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  • Arndt, Jamie, Jeff Greenberg, Thomas Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. 1997a. Subliminal exposure to death-related stimuli increases defense of the cultural worldview. Psychological Science 8.5: 379–385.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00429.x.Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Subliminal reminders of death produce immediate increases in death thought accessibility as well as cultural worldview defense.

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  • Arndt, Jamie, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Thomas Pyszczynski, and Linda Simon. 1997b. Suppression, accessibility of death-related thoughts, and cultural worldview defense: exploring the psychodynamics of terror management. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73.1: 5–18.

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    A series of experiments demonstrates that death thought accessibility is low immediately following mortality salience as a result of active suppression, and that a delayed increase in the accessibility of death-related thoughts (presumably from relaxation of the suppression) is responsible for the delayed appearance of cultural worldview defense. Available online.

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  • Greenberg, Jeff, Jamie Arndt, Linda Simon, Thomas Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. 2000. Proximal and distal defenses in response to reminders of one’s mortality: Evidence of a temporal sequence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26.1: 91–99.

    DOI: 10.1177/0146167200261009Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    These experiments demonstrate that immediately after a mortality salience induction, people engage in proximal defenses (vulnerability-denying defensive distortions) but do not show evidence of distal defense (exaggerated regard and disdain for similar and dissimilar others, respectively); distal defense is obtained after a delay, but proximal defenses are not.

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  • Greenberg, Jeff, Thomas Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, Linda Simon, and Michael Breus. 1994. Role of consciousness and accessibility of death-related thoughts in mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67.4: 627–637.

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    Studies show that cultural worldview defense does not occur when mortality is highly salient, or when people are forced to keep thoughts of death in their consciousness following a typical mortality salience induction. These studies lead to the development of the dual-defense model. Available online.

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  • Han, Shihui, Jungang Qin, and Yina Ma. 2010. Neurocognitive processes of linguistic cues related to death. Neuropsychologia 48.12: 3436–3442.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.07.026Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (F-MRI) shows that thinking about death has unique neuroanatomical consequences above and beyond negative events in general.

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  • Pyszczynski, Thomas, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon. 1999. A dual-process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: An extension of terror management theory. Psychological Review 106.4: 835–845.

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    Distinct defensive responses are activated by thoughts of death that are conscious and those that are on the fringes of consciousness. Proximal defenses entail the suppression of death-related thoughts and are activated when thoughts of death are in current conscious attention. Distal terror management defenses entail maintaining self-esteem and faith in one’s cultural worldview and serve to control the potential for anxiety resulting from awareness of the inevitability of death. Available online.

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  • Quirin, Markus, Alexander Loktyushin, Jamie Arndt, Ekkehard Küstermann, Yin-Yueh Lo, Julius Kuhl, and Lucas Eggert. 2011. Existential neuroscience: a functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of neural responses to reminders of one’s mortality. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

    DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsq106Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (F-MRI) shows that thinking about death has unique neuroanatomical consequences above and beyond negative events in general. Available to subscribers online.

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Self-Esteem as Anxiety Buffer

Terror management theory posits that self-esteem consists of the belief that one is a valuable member of a meaningful universe, and the primary function of self-esteem is to buffer anxiety. Solomon, et al. 1991 reviews correlational research showing that high self-esteem is associated with reduced anxiety. Greenberg, et al. 1993 demonstrates that momentarily elevated or dispositionally high self-esteem reduces defensive reactions to threat. Greenberg, et al. 1992 finds that raising self-esteem reduced self-reported anxiety in response to watching gory images of death, and reduced autonomic arousal in anticipation of painful electrical shocks. Pyszczynski, et al. 2004b summarizes the terror management theory conception of self-esteem and corroborating evidence. Crocker and Nuer 2004, Leary 2004, and Ryan and Deci 2004 provide critical assessments of the terror management view of self-esteem and offer alternative accounts of the nature and function of self-esteem. Pyszczynski, et al. 2004a responds to these criticisms.

  • Crocker, Jennifer, and Noah Nuer. 2004. Do people need self-esteem? Comment on Pyszczynski, et al. (2004). Psychological Bulletin 130.3: 469–472.

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    The authors take issue with the claim that people need self-esteem and that self-esteem buffers anxiety; rather, self-esteem is primarily an indication of the extent to which people have accomplished important goals. A discussion follows on pp. 483–488. Available online.

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  • Greenberg, Jeff, Thomas Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, Elizabeth Pinel, Linda Simon, and Krista Jordan. 1993. Effects of self-esteem on vulnerability-denying defensive distortions: Further evidence of an anxiety-buffering function of self-esteem. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 29.3: 229–251.

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    Replicates previous studies showing that people bias emotionality reports to deny vulnerability to a short life expectancy, and demonstrates that such tendencies are reduced when self-esteem is momentarily elevated or dispositionally high.

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  • Greenberg, Jeff, Sheldon Solomon, Thomas Pyszczynski, A. Rosenblatt, J. Burling, D. Lyon, et al. 1992. Why do people need self-esteem? Converging evidence that self-esteem serves an anxiety-buffering function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63.6: 913–922.

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    First studies to show a causal relationship between self-esteem and anxiety. Demonstrates that increasing self-esteem reduces self-reported anxiety in response to viewing images of an autopsy and execution by electrocution; increasing self-esteem also reduces autonomic arousal (skin conductance) in anticipation of painful electrical shocks. Available online.

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  • Leary, Mark R. 2004. The function of self-esteem in terror management theory and sociometer theory: Comment on Pyszczynski, et al. (2004). Psychological Bulletin 130.3: 478–482.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.3.478Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that self-esteem does not serve an anxiety-buffering function; rather, it is a psychological barometer of how one is viewed by others, based on the assumption that humans are fundamentally social creatures who need to belong and are consequently sensitive to social evaluation.

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  • Pyszczynski, Thomas, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Jamie Arndt, and J. Schimel. 2004a. Converging toward an integrated theory of self-esteem: Reply to Crocker and Nuer (2004), Ryan and Deci (2004), and Leary (2004). Psychological Bulletin 130.3: 483–488.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.3.483Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Responds to conceptual and empirical criticisms of the terror management theory analysis of nature and function of self-esteem; specifically, that alternative accounts of self-esteem are problematic theoretically and/or cannot account for existing evidence showing that self-esteem buffers anxiety.

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  • Pyszczynski, Thomas, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Jamie Arndt, and J. Schimel. 2004b. Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin 130.3: 435–468.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.3.435Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive review of terror management theory’s conception of the nature and function of self-esteem, summary of corroborating evidence, and consideration of alternative theoretical accounts of self-esteem.

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  • Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. 2004. Avoiding death or engaging life as accounts of meaning and culture: Comment on Pyszczynski, et al. (2004). Psychological Bulletin 130.3: 473–477; discussion 483–488.

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    Agrees with the terror management view of self-esteem as an anxiety buffer, but argues that self-esteem also serves non-defensive pro-growth motives. Available online.

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  • Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg, and Thomas Pyszczynski. 1991. Terror management theory of self-esteem. In Handbook of social and clinical psychology: The health perspective. Edited by Charles R. Snyder and D. Forsyth, 21–40. New York: Pergamon.

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    Reviews correlational literature examining the relationship between self-esteem and anxiety.

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Mortality Salience and Worldview Defense

If cultural worldviews serve to provide beliefs about the nature of reality that assuage anxiety associated with the awareness of death, then asking people to ponder their own mortality (“mortality salience”) should increase the need for the protection provided by such beliefs and result in worldview defense—vigorous agreement with and affection for those who share one’s beliefs, and increased disdain for and hostility toward those who do not share one’s beliefs. The first published demonstration of worldview defense in response to mortality salience was in Rosenblatt, et al. 1989, in which it is shown that municipal court judges prescribed higher bond for an alleged prostitute; this finding is then replicated with other populations while ruling out alternative explanations for it. Studies reported in Greenberg, et al. 1990 demonstrate that mortality salience produces more favorable impressions of those who uphold cherished cultural values as well as derogation of those who oppose such values. McGregor, et al. 1998 demonstrates that mortality salience influences behavior as well as attitudes; specifically, participants reminded of their mortality become more physically aggressive against targets with different political views. Florian and Mikulincer 1998 shows mortality salience effects in 11-year-old children. Cross-cultural validity of terror management theory is established by demonstrations of worldview defense in response to mortality salience by Hindus in India (Fernandez, et al. 2010) Aboriginal Australians (Halloran and Kashima 2004), and Hong Kong Chinese (Tam, et al. 2007). In a meta-analysis of mortality salience effects, Burke, et al. 2010 found moderate effects of mortality salience on worldview and self-esteem-related dependent variables.

  • Burke, Brian L., Andy Martens, and Erik H. Faucher. 2010. Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality and Social Psychology Review 14.2: 155–195.

    DOI: 10.1177/1088868309352321Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A meta-analysis investigating the mortality salience hypothesis of terror management theory based on 277 experiments yields moderate effects (r = .35) on a range of worldview- and self-esteem-related dependent variables.

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  • Fernandez, Silvia, Emanuele Castano, and Indramani Singh. 2010. Managing death in the burning grounds of Varanasi, India: A terror management investigation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 41.2: 182–194.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022022109354376Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Establishes cross-cultural validity of terror management theory by finding worldview defense in response to mortality salience among Hindus in India.

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  • Florian, Victor, and Mario Mikulincer. 1998. Terror management in childhood: Does death conceptualization moderate the effects of mortality salience on acceptance of similar and different others? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24.10: 1104–1112.

    DOI: 10.1177/01461672982410007Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Corroborates the developmental account of terror management processes in Solomon, et al. 1991 by finding worldview defense in response to mortality salience in 11-year-old, but not 7-year-old, Israeli children.

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  • Greenberg, Jeff, Thomas Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and A. Rosenblatt. 1990. Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58.2: 308–318.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.58.2.308Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    American Christian students reminded of their mortality have more favorable impressions of fellow Christians and less favorable impressions of Jewish students; Americans reminded of their mortality have more favorable impressions of pro-American authors and less favorable impressions of anti-American authors.

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  • Halloran, Michael J., and Emiko S. Kashima. 2004. Social identity and worldview validation: The effects of ingroup identity primes and mortality salience on value endorsement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 30.7: 915–925.

    DOI: 10.1177/0146167204264080Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Establishes cross-cultural validity of terror management theory by finding worldview defense in response to mortality salience among Aboriginal Australians.

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  • McGregor, Holly A., Joel D. Lieberman, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Jamie Arndt, Linda Simon, et al. 1998. Terror management and aggression: Evidence that mortality salience motivates aggression against worldview-threatening others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74.3: 590–605.

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    Demonstrates that mortality salience influences behavior as well as attitudes. Participants reminded of their mortality become more physically aggressive against targets with different political views. Also establishes that defensive reactions to mortality salience are interchangeable: After mortality salience, people who derogate someone different do not subsequently behave aggressively toward him or her. Available online.

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  • Rosenblatt, Abram, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Thomas Pyszczynski, and Deborah Lyon. 1989. Evidence for terror management theory I: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57.4: 681–690.

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    First published empirical support for terror management theory, in which it is shown that municipal court judges reminded of their mortality set a higher bond for an alleged prostitute. This effect is then replicated in subsequent studies that rule out various alternative explanations for this basic effect. Available online.

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  • Tam, Kim-Pong, Chi-Yue Chiu, and Ivy Yee-Man Lau. 2007. Terror management among Chinese: Worldview defence and intergroup bias in resource allocation. Asian Journal of Social Psychology 10.2: 93–102.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-839X.2007.00216.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Establishes cross-cultural validity of terror management theory by finding worldview defense in response to mortality salience among Hong Kong Chinese.

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Mortality Salience and Self-Esteem Striving

Given the terror management claim that self-esteem buffers anxiety in general and death anxiety in particular, reminders of death should instigate bolstered self-esteem. Taubman Ben-Ari, et al. 1999 demonstrates that Israeli soldiers whose self-esteem is based on their driving skills drive faster and more recklessly on a driving simulator after a mortality salience induction. Miller and Taubman - Ben-Ari 2004 finds that experienced skin divers reminded of their mortality report they would be more willing to dive under dangerous conditions. Goldenberg, et al. 2000 shows that individuals high in body esteem respond to mortality salience manipulations with increased identification with their physical bodies and increased interest in sex. Kosloff, et al. 2011 demonstrates that mortality salience motivates interest in dating someone physically attractive in order to enhance self-regard. Landau and Greenberg 2006 shows that mortality salience leads high-, but not low-, self-esteem participants faced with a risky decision to pursue opportunities for excellence.

  • Goldenberg, Jamie L., Shannon K. McCoy, Thomas Pyszczynski, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon. 2000. The body as a source of self-esteem: The effect of mortality salience on identification with one’s body, interest in sex, and appearance monitoring. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79.1: 118–130.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.79.1.118Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Following a mortality salience induction, people with high body self-esteem have more favorable impressions of their bodies and reported greater interest in sex—presumably in an effort to fortify their self-esteem.

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  • Kosloff, Spee, Jeff Greenberg, Daniel Sullivan, and D. Weise. 2011. Of trophies and pillars: Exploring the terror management functions of short-term and long-term relationship partners. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37.5: 687–700.

    DOI: 10.1177/0146167210374602Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Studies demonstrate that mortality salience motivates interest in dating someone physically attractive in order to enhance self-regard.

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  • Landau, Mark J., and Jeff Greenberg. 2006. Play it safe or go for the gold? A terror management perspective on self-enhancement and self-protective motives in risky decision making. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 32.12: 1633–1645.

    DOI: 10.1177/0146167206292017Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    People with high self-esteem take greater risks in the service of self-enhancement when mortality is made salient.

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  • Miller, Gila, and Orit Taubman - Ben-Ari. 2004. Scuba diving risk taking: A terror management theory perspective. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 26.2: 269–282.

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    Experienced skin divers report greater willingness to dive under adverse conditions (e.g., bad weather or physical illness) in response to a mortality salience induction.

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  • Taubman Ben-Ari, Orit, Victor Florian, and Mario Mikulincer. 1999. The impact of mortality salience on reckless driving: A test of terror management mechanisms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76:35–45.

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    First empirical demonstration of mortality salience–induced self-esteem striving. Israeli soldiers who derived self-esteem from their driving prowess drive faster and more recklessly on a driving simulator after thinking about their own death. Available online.

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Self-Esteem, Mortality Salience, and Worldview Defense

Given the terror management claim that self-esteem buffers anxiety in general and death anxiety in particular, momentarily elevated or dispositionally high self-esteem should reduce or eliminate mortality salience–induced worldview defense. Harmon-Jones, et al. 1997 corroborates this claim for explicit self-esteem. Schmeichel, et al. 2009 corroborates this claim for implicit self-esteem.

  • Harmon-Jones, Eddie, Linda Simon, Jeff Greenberg, Thomas Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Holly McGregor. 1997. Terror management theory and self-esteem: Evidence that increased self-esteem reduces mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72.1: 24–36.

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    Mortality salience–induced worldview defense is attenuated by momentarily elevated or dispositionally high explicit self-esteem. Available online.

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  • Schmeichel, Brandon J., Matthew T. Gailliot, Emily-Ana Filardo, Ian McGregor, Seth Gitter, and Roy F. Baumeister. 2009. Terror management theory and self-esteem revisited: The roles of implicit and explicit self-esteem in mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96.5: 1077–1087.

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    Mortality salience–induced worldview defense is attenuated by momentarily elevated or dispositionally high implicit self-esteem. Available online.

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Threats to Cultural Worldview and Self-Esteem Increase Death Thought Accessibility

If cultural worldviews and self-esteem serve to mitigate existential terror, then threats to cherished aspects of one’s cultural worldview or one’s self-esteem should increase the accessibility of implicit death thoughts. That is, non-conscious death thoughts should come more readily to mind; for example, people asked to make a word from the stem G R _ _ _ would more likely produce the word GRAPE if they had recently had a glass of wine, and GRAVE if they had recently walked past a cemetery. In support of this hypothesis, Friedman and Rholes 2007 finds that Christian fundamentalists have higher death thought accessibility after being confronted with inconsistencies in the Bible; Schimel, et al. 2007 finds that Canadians have higher death thought accessibility after reading a derogatory description of their country; Ogilvie, et al. 2008 shows that asking people to imagine themselves at their worst increases death thought accessibility; Hayes, et al. 2008 demonstrates that death thought accessibility increases after a participant’s self-esteem is temporarily undermined by false negative feedback. Hayes, et al. 2010 reviews research findings associated with the concept of death thought accessibility and theoretical refinements of terror management theory in light of these studies.

  • Friedman, Mike, and W. Steven Rholes. 2007. Successfully challenging fundamentalist beliefs results in increased death awareness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43.5: 794–801.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2006.07.008Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Christian fundamentalists have higher death thought accessibility after being confronted with logical inconsistency in the Bible.

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  • Hayes, Joseph, Jeff Schimel, Jamie Arndt, and Erik H. Faucher. 2010. A theoretical and empirical review of the death-thought accessibility concept in terror management research. Psychological Bulletin 136.5: 699–739.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0020524Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive review of research employing the death thought accessibility construct and refinements of terror management theory based on this research.

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  • Hayes, Joseph, Jeff Schimel, Erik H. Faucher, and Todd J. Williams. 2008. Evidence for the DTA hypothesis II: Threatening self-esteem increases death-thought accessibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44.3: 600–613.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.01.004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Threatening self-esteem by false IQ or personality feedback increases death thought accessibility assessed by a typical word stem completion task and by a lexical decision task.

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  • Ogilvie, Daniel, Florette Cohen, and Sheldon Solomon. 2008. The undesired self: Deadly connotations. Journal of Research in Personality 42.3: 564–576.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.07.012Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Participants asked to think of themselves at their worst report higher death thought accessibility.

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  • Schimel, Jeff, Joseph Hayes, Todd Williams, and Jesse Jahrig. 2007. Is death really the worm at the core? Converging evidence that worldview threat increases death-thought accessibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92.5: 789–803.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.5.789Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Multiple experiments demonstrate that challenging cherished aspects of religious or secular cultural worldviews increases death thought accessibility.

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Ancillary Research

After basic tenets of terror management theory were empirically corroborated, additional research was devoted to the application of terror management theory to a wide range of social psychological phenomena, including legal decision making, materialism and conspicuous consumption, sexuality and body image, close relationships, psychopathology, political preferences, and health psychology.

Terror in the Courtroom

In the first published demonstration of worldview defense in response to mortality salience, Rosenblatt, et al. 1989 finds that municipal court judges reminded of their own mortality set a higher bond for an alleged prostitute. Subsequent research, reviewed by Arndt, et al. 2005, delineates how terror management processes influence various aspects of legal decision making, with particular attention to jury deliberations. Judges 1999 and Kirchmeier 2008 argue that capital punishment is authoritarian terror management; that is, capital punishment is prescribed to assuage the death fears of judges and jurors rather than to punish or reform the offenders. Consistent with this view, McCann 2008 shows that death penalty sentencing increases in conservative states during times of social upheaval when mortality is especially likely to be salient.

  • Arndt, Jamie, J. D. Lieberman, Alison Cook, and S. Solomon. 2005. Terror management in the courtroom: Exploring the effects of mortality salience on legal decision making. Psychology Public Policy and Law 11.3: 407–438.

    DOI: 10.1037/1076-8971.11.3.407Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    General review of terror management theory and research in the context of legal decision making.

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  • Judges, Donald P. 1999. Scared to death: Capital punishment as authoritarian terror management. University of California at Davis Law Review 33:155–248.

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    Based on terror management theory, it is argued that the death penalty is generally employed to assuage the death fears of judges and jurors rather than as just retribution for particular crimes.

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  • Kirchmeier, Jeffrey L. 2008. Our existential death penalty: Judges, jurors, and terror management. Law and Psychology Review 32:55.

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    Additional evidence in support of the view that the death penalty is generally employed to assuage the death fears of judges and jurors rather than as just retribution for particular crimes. Available online.

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  • McCann, Stewart J. H. 2008. Societal threat, authoritarianism, conservatism, and U.S. state death penalty sentencing (1977–2004). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94.5: 913–923.

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    Reviews over two decades of archival data and finds that death penalty sentencing increases in conservative states during times of social upheaval when mortality is especially likely to be salient. Available online.

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  • Rosenblatt, Abram, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Thomas Pyszczynski, and Deborah Lyon. 1989. Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57.4: 681–690.

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    Municipal court judges reminded of their mortality set higher bonds for an alleged prostitute, presumably to bolster their cultural worldview. Available online.

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Lethal Consumption: Death-Denying Materialism

Solomon, et al. 2004 provides a terror management theory account of conspicuous consumption and desire for wealth in which the authors argue that people’s insatiable desire for money and possessions results (at least in part) from a death-denying pursuit of literal and symbolic immortality. Arndt, et al. 2004 reviews existing research on the terror management function of materialism. Kasser and Sheldon 2000 demonstrates that self-reported fiscal aspirations and greedy pursuit of short-term gain at the expense of long-term environmental sustainability increase in response to mortality salience. Fransen, et al. 2008 finds increased fiscal aspirations after participants are exposed to insurance company logos (which in turn increase accessibility of implicit death thoughts—a necessary and sufficient condition for mortality salience effects). Mandel and Heine 1999 finds that luxury items, like a Lexus or a Rolex watch, but not more pedestrian items, such as an economy car or Pringles potato chips, become more desirable following a reminder of death. Mandel and Smeesters 2008 demonstrates that consumers recently reminded of their own death report a greater desire to purchase, and actually eat, larger quantities of food products.

  • Arndt, Jamie, Sheldon Solomon, Tim Kasser, and Kennon Sheldon. 2004. The urge to splurge: A terror management account of materialism and consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology 14.3: 198–212.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15327663jcp1403_2Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Summarizes the terror management theory analysis of materialism and conspicuous consumption and research based on this analysis.

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  • Fransen, Marieke, Bob Fennis, Ad Pruyn, and Enny Das. 2008. Rest in peace? Brand-induced mortality salience and consumer behavior. Journal of Business Research 61.10: 1053–1061.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2007.09.020Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Studies find that subtle and indirect reminders of death (specifically, exposure to insurance company logos) increase fiscal aspirations.

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  • Kasser, Tim, and Kennon M. Sheldon. 2000. Of wealth and death: materialism, mortality salience, and consumption behavior. Psychological Science 11.4: 348–351.

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    Following a mortality salience induction, participants report higher fiscal aspirations and are more greedily acquisitive in a simulated forest management game. Available online.

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  • Mandel, Naomi, and S. J. Heine. 1999. Terror management and marketing: He who dies with the most toys wins. Advances in Consumer Research 26.1: 527–532.

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    Participants report a greater desire for a Lexus or a Rolex, but not a Chevy Geo or Pringles potato chips, after a mortality salience induction.

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  • Mandel, Naomi, and Dirk Smeesters. 2008. The sweet escape: Effects of mortality salience on consumption quantities for high- and low-self-esteem consumers. Journal of Consumer Research 35.2: 309–323.

    DOI: 10.1086/587626Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Consumers recently reminded of their own death report a greater desire to purchase, and actually eat, larger quantities of food products. This effect is especially pronounced for low-self-esteem participants.

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  • Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg, and Thomas Pyszczynski. 2004. Lethal consumption: Death-denying materialism. In Psychology and consumer culture. Edited by Tim Kasser and A. D. Kanner, 127–146. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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    Terror management theory analysis of conspicuous consumption as death-denying efforts to procure self-esteem, as well as literal and symbolic immortality.

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I Am Not an Animal: Sex and the Body

Goldenberg, et al. 2000 argues that from the perspective of terror management theory, the human body is problematic because it serves as a perpetual reminder of the inevitability of death. Human beings confront this problem through the development of cultural worldviews that imbue reality—and the body as part of that reality—with abstract symbolic meaning. This is the psychological impetus for distancing ourselves from other animals and the need to regulate behaviors that remind us of our physical nature. This helps explain why people are embarrassed and disgusted by their bodies’ functions; why sex is such a common source of problems, difficulties, regulations, and rituals; why sex tends to be associated with romantic love; and why cultures value physical attractiveness and objectify women. In accord with this view, Goldenberg, et al. 2001 demonstrates that people reminded of their mortality vigorously resist depictions of humans as animals; Cox, et al. 2007 finds that participants reminded of their similarity to animals have higher death thought accessibility when exposed to stimuli that typically elicit disgust; Goldenberg, et al. 1999 shows that physical aspects of sex are particularly unappealing after a mortality salience induction, especially for highly neurotic participants; and Landau, et al. 2006 confirms that women’s sexual allure threatens to increase men’s awareness of their corporeality and thus mortality, by experiments showing that in response to mortality salience, males were less attracted to seductive, but not wholesome, women.

  • Cox, Cathy R., Jamie L. Goldenberg, Thomas Pyszczynski, and D. Weise. 2007. Disgust, creatureliness and the accessibility of death-related thoughts. European Journal of Social Psychology 37.3: 494–507.

    DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.370Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Disgusting stimuli increased accessibility of implicit death thoughts after participants were reminded of their similarity to animals.

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  • Goldenberg, Jamie L., Thomas Pyszczynski, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon. 2000. Fleeing the body: A terror management perspective on the problem of human corporeality. Personality and Social Psychology Review 4.3: 200–218.

    DOI: 10.1207/S15327957PSPR0403_1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A terror management theory analysis of why concerns about mortality make people uncomfortable with their bodies and basic biological functions.

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  • Goldenberg, Jamie L., Thomas Pyszczynski, S. K. McCoy, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon. 1999. Death, sex, love, and neuroticism: Why is sex such a problem? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77.6: 1173–1187.

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    Physical aspects of sex become less appealing following a mortality salience induction, particularly for participants high in neuroticism. Available online.

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  • Goldenberg, Jamie L., Thomas Pyszczynski, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, B. Kluck, and R. Cornwell. 2001. I am not an animal: Mortality salience, disgust, and the denial of human creatureliness. Journal of Experimental Psychology General 130.3: 427–435.

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    People reminded of their mortality are less inclined to view themselves as animals. Available online.

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  • Landau, Mark J., Jamie L. Goldenberg, Jeff Greenberg, Omri Gillath, Sheldon Solomon, Cathy Cox, Andy Martens, and Thomas Pyszczynski. 2006. The siren’s call: Terror management and the threat of men’s sexual attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90.1: 129–146.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.90.1.129Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Multiple experiments support the terror management contention that women’s sexual allure threatens to increase men’s awareness of their corporeality and thus mortality. In response to mortality salience, males are less attracted to seductive, but not wholesome, women.

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Close Relationships as the Third Pillar of Terror Management

Terror management theory originally delineated two psychological structures that serve to diminish the terror of death: the cultural worldview and self-esteem. Mikulincer, et al. 2003 proposes that close relationships serve as a third death-anxiety buffering mechanism. In accord with this view, Florian, et al. 2002 demonstrates that death reminders heighten the motivation to form and maintain close relationships, and the maintenance of close relationships mitigates worldview defense in response to mortality salience, whereas the breaking of close relationships results in an upsurge of death awareness; Hart, et al. 2005 corroborates the prediction derived from the tripartite model that threats to one component of the security system result in compensatory defensive activation of other components; and Cox, et al. 2008 demonstrates that attachment to parents and close friends buffers death anxiety among young adults.

  • Cox, Cathy R., Jamie Arndt, Thomas Pyszczynski, Jeff Greenberg, Abdolhossein Abdollahi, and Sheldon Solomon. 2008. Terror management and adults’ attachment to their parents: The safe haven remains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94.4: 696–717.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.94.4.696Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Parental attachment and relationships with close friends buffers young adults’ death anxiety.

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  • Florian, Victor, Mario Mikulincer, and Gilad Hirschberger. 2002. The anxiety-buffering function of close relationships: Evidence that relationship commitment acts as a terror management mechanism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82.4: 527–542.

    DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.82.4.527Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrates that making close relationships salient reduces mortality salience–induced worldview defense, and that imagining the dissolution of a close relationship increases death thought accessibility.

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  • Hart, Joshua, Phillip R. Shaver, and Jamie L. Goldenberg. 2005. Attachment, self-esteem, worldviews, and terror management: Evidence for a tripartite security system. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88.6: 999–1013.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.88.6.999Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Experiments support a tripartite (cultural worldview, self-esteem, close relationships) terror management system by showing that each component serves similar and interchangeable psychological functions.

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  • Mikulincer, Mario, Victor Florian, and Gilad Hirschberger. 2003. The existential function of close relationships: Introducing death into the science of love. Personality and Social Psychology Review 7.1: 20–40.

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    Close relationships are posited to serve as a third source of terror management, in addition to maintaining faith in one’s cultural worldview and sustaining a sense that one is a person of value in a world of meaning (i.e., self-esteem). Empirical evidence in support of this assertion is reviewed. Available online.

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Psychopathology as Terror Mismanagement

According to terror management theory, anxiety engendered by the uniquely human awareness of death is assuaged by subscribing to a particular cultural worldview and deriving a sense of value from it. However, if faith in the cultural anxiety buffer is inadequate, individuals will have continual difficulties managing the fear of death, and may (depending on biological predisposition and previous experience) develop different forms of psychopathology as maladaptive attempts to cope with this anxiety. Arndt, et al. 2005 provides a general overview of a terror management view of psychopathology. Pyszczynski and Kesebir 2011 presents a terror management account of PTSD. Simon, et al. 1996 finds that mildly depressed participants respond more vigorously to a mortality salience induction. Strachan, et al. 2007 demonstrates that, following a mortality salience induction, snake phobics become more fearful of pictures of snakes, obsessive-compulsive participants use more soap and water to wash their hands, and socially anxious participants become more disinclined to be with other people. Kosloff, et al. 2006 shows that reminders of death increase psychological dissociation and anxiety sensitivity, which are both highly predictive of the development of PTSD. Routledge, et al. 2010 demonstrates that non-conscious death thoughts are associated with psychological maladjustment for individuals with low self-esteem.

  • Arndt, Jamie, Clay Routledge, Cathy R. Cox, and Jamie L. Goldenberg. 2005. The worm at the core: Terror management perspective on the roots of psychological dysfunction. Applied and Preventive Psychology 11.3: 191–213.

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    A general overview of the terror management view that psychopathology results from maladaptive efforts to cope with death anxiety. Available online.

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  • Kosloff, Spee, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Florette Cohen, Beth Gershuny, Clay Routledge, et al. 2006. Fatal distraction: The impact of mortality salience on dissociative responses to 9/11 and subsequent anxiety sensitivity. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 28.4: 349–356.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15324834basp2804_8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Experiments show that psychological dissociation and anxiety sensitivity (putative precursors of PTSD) increase in response to mortality salience.

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  • Pyszczynski, Thomas, and Pelin Kesebir. 2011. Anxiety buffer disruption theory: A terror management account of posttraumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping 24.1: 3–26.

    DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2010.517524Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A terror management account of PTSD.

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  • Routledge, Clay, Brian Ostafin, Jacob Juhl, Constantine Sedikides, Christie Cathey, and Jiangqun Liao. 2010. Adjusting to death: The effects of mortality salience and self-esteem on psychological well-being, growth motivation, and maladaptive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99.6: 897–916.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0021431Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Research demonstrates the relationship among self-esteem, death cognition, and psychological adjustment. In accord with terror management theory, death-related cognition decreases satisfaction with life, subjective vitality, meaning in life, and exploration; increases negative affect and state anxiety; and exacerbates social avoidance for individuals with low self-esteem but not for those with high self-esteem.

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  • Simon, Linda, Jeff Greenberg, E. H. Jones, Sheldon Solomon, and Thomas Pyszczynsi. 1996. Mild depression, mortality salience and defense of the worldview: Evidence of intensified terror management in the mildly depressed. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 22.1: 81–90.

    DOI: 10.1177/0146167296221008Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Experiments demonstrate that mildly depressed individuals respond more vigorously to a mortality salience induction, presumably because they are not confidently embedded in a cultural worldview.

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  • Strachan, Eric, Jeff Schimel, Jamie Arndt, Todd Williams, Sheldon Solomon, Thomas Pyszczynski, et al. 2007. Terror mismanagement: evidence that mortality salience exacerbates phobic and compulsive behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 33.8: 1137–1151.

    DOI: 10.1177/0146167207303018Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Experiments provide strong empirical support for a terror management account of psychopathology. Following a mortality salience induction, snake phobics become more fearful of snakes, obsessive-compulsive individuals use more soap and water to wash their hands, and socially anxious participants are more disinclined to be with other people.

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Fatal Attraction: Fear of Death and Political Preferences

According to the sociologist Max Weber, charismatic leaders generally arise in times of historical upheaval. From a terror management theory perspective, this is because death fears increase a person’s attraction to charismatic leaders (and support for their policies) who typically proclaim that God has chosen them to rid the world of evil. Consistent with this claim, Cohen, et al. 2004 demonstrates increased preference for a charismatic candidate in a hypothetical gubernatorial election in response to a mortality salience induction; Landau, et al. 2004 found that conservative and liberal Americans reminded of their mortality became more supportive of President George W. Bush and his policies in Iraq prior to the 2004 presidential election; Cohen, et al. 2005 found (in an experiment conducted in September 2004) that whereas registered voters in a control condition reported intending to vote for Senator John Kerry over President Bush by a 4:1 margin, President Bush was favored over Senator Kerry by an almost 3:1 margin after a mortality salience induction; Weise, et al. 2008 found that whereas insecurely attached Americans reminded of their mortality were increasingly supportive of Bush in the 2004 election, securely attached Americans reminded of their mortality were increasingly supportive of Kerry; Kosloff, et al. 2010 provides additional evidence that mortality salience does not simply render participants more conservative—rather, following a mortality salience induction, liberal participants are more enthusiastic about liberal charismatic leaders and conservative participants are more enthusiastic about conservative charismatic leaders; and, Pyszczynski, et al. 2006 shows that Iranians reminded of their mortality become more supportive of suicide bombers and more willing to become a martyr, and American conservatives reminded of their mortality become more supportive of nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare against countries that pose no direct threat to the United States.

  • Cohen, Florette, D. M. Ogilvie, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Thomas Pyszczynski. 2005. American roulette: The effect of reminders of death on support for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 5.1: 177–187.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-2415.2005.00063.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An experiment conducted in late September prior to the 2004 US presidential election found that while registered voters in a control condition reported they intended to vote for Senator John Kerry over President George W. Bush by a 4:1 margin, participants reminded of their mortality reported they intended to vote for President Bush over Senator Kerry by an almost 3:1 margin.

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  • Cohen, Florette, Sheldon Solomon, Molly Maxfield, Thomas Pyszczynski, and Jeff Greenberg. 2004. Fatal attraction: The effects of mortality salience on evaluations of charismatic, task-oriented, and relationship-oriented leaders. Psychological Science 15.12: 846–851.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00765.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Mortality salience increases the attractiveness of, and intention to vote for, a charismatic political candidate in a hypothetical election.

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  • Kosloff, Spee, Jeff Greenberg, D. R. Weise, and Sheldon Solomon. 2010. The effects of mortality salience on political preferences: The roles of charisma and political orientation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46.1: 139–145.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.09.002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrates that increased support for charismatic leaders in response to mortality salience is not the result of a shift toward conservative values by showing that liberals reminded of mortality increased their support for charismatic liberals, while conservatives reminded of their mortality increased their support for charismatic conservatives.

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  • Landau, Mark J., Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Florette Cohen, Thomas Pyszczynski, Jamie Arndt, et al. 2004. Deliver us from evil: The effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 30.9: 1136–1150.

    DOI: 10.1177/0146167204267988Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    American participants (regardless of their political orientation) reminded of their mortality or the events of September 11, 2001, (which in turn increased death thought accessibility) were more supportive of President George W. Bush and his policies in Iraq.

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  • Pyszczynski, Thomas, Abdolhossein Abdollahi, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Florette Cohen, and D. R. Weise. 2006. Mortality salience, martyrdom, and military might: The Great Satan versus the Axis of Evil. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 32.4: 525–537.

    DOI: 10.1177/0146167205282157Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Iranian participants reminded of their mortality become more supportive of a suicide bomber and express greater willingness to become a martyr; conservative (but not liberal or moderate) Americans reminded of their mortality become more supportive of preemptive nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare against countries that pose no direct threat to the United States.

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  • Weise, D. R., Thomas Pyszczynski, Cathy R. Cox, Jamie Arndt, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, et al. 2008. Interpersonal politics: The role of terror management and attachment processes in shaping political preferences. Psychological Science 19.5: 448–455.

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    Whereas securely attached Americans reminded of their mortality became more supportive of Senator John Kerry prior to the 2004 presidential election, insecurely attached Americans reminded of their mortality became more supportive of President George W. Bush. Available online.

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Death Can Be Hazardous to Your Health: Terror Management Health Model

Goldenberg and Arndt 2008 uses the dual-process theory of proximal and distal defenses in Pyszczynski, et al. 1999 to develop a terror management health model to elucidate how conscious and non-conscious death thoughts influence health decisions. Conscious thoughts about death instigate health-oriented responses aimed at removing death-related thoughts from current focal attention; unconscious death thoughts promote defenses directed toward maintaining not one’s health, but a sense of meaning and self-esteem. Empirical support for this model is provided by Routledge, et al. 2004, reporting experiments demonstrating that when concerns about death are in focal attention, participants increase their intentions to protect themselves from dangerous sun exposure; however, when thoughts about death are outside of focal attention, participants’ interest in sun protection decreased. Arndt, et al. 2006 reports experiments showing that adaptive coping is associated with increased health-behavioral intentions immediately after death thoughts are made salient, but not after a delay. Additionally, Arndt, et al. 2007 demonstrates that thinking about cancer automatically activates death-related thoughts and consequent efforts to suppress them, resulting in decreased cancer-related self-exam intentions; and Goldenberg, et al. 2008 shows that women reminded of their mortality or that humans are animals perform shorter breast self-examinations. Hansen, et al. 2010 hypothesizes and finds that if smoking is a source of self-esteem, then death-related warnings on cigarette packages make attitudes toward smoking more positive as a self-esteem-striving distal defensive reaction.

  • Arndt, Jamie, Clay Routledge, and Jamie L. Goldenberg. 2006. Predicting proximal health responses to reminders of death: The influence of coping style and health optimism. Psychology and Health 21.5: 593–614.

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    Found that adaptive coping is associated with increased health-behavioral intentions immediately after death thoughts are made salient, but not after a delay. Available online.

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  • Arndt, Jamie, Alison Cook, Jamie L. Goldenberg, and Cathy R. Cox. 2007. Cancer and the threat of death: The cognitive dynamics of death-thought suppression and its impact on behavioral health intentions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92.1: 12–29.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.1.12Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    These important studies contributed to the development of the terror management health model. Thinking about cancer automatically activates death-related thoughts and consequent efforts to suppress them, resulting in decreased cancer-related self-exam intentions.

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  • Goldenberg, Jamie L., and Jamie Arndt. 2008. The implications of death for health: A terror management health model for behavioral health promotion. Psychological Review 115.4: 1032–1053.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0013326Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents a terror management health model to elucidate how conscious and non-conscious death thoughts influence health decisions. Conscious thoughts about death instigate health-oriented responses aimed at removing death-related thoughts from current focal attention, and unconscious death thoughts promote defenses directed toward maintaining not one’s health, but a sense of meaning and self-esteem.

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  • Goldenberg, Jamie L., Jamie Arndt, Joshua Hart, and Clay Routledge. 2008. Uncovering an existential barrier to breast cancer screening behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44.2: 260–274.

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    Women reminded of their mortality or that humans are animals perform shorter breast self-examinations. Available online.

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  • Hansen, Jochim, Susanne Winzeler, and Sascha Topolinski. 2010. When the death makes you smoke: A terror management perspective on the effectiveness of cigarette on-pack warnings. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46.1: 226–228.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.09.007Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors hypothesize and find that if smoking is a source of self-esteem, then death-related warnings on cigarette packages make attitudes toward smoking more positive as a self-esteem-striving distal defensive reaction. Thus, mortality-salient warnings may increase the tendency to favor smoking under certain circumstances.

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  • Pyszczynski, Thomas, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon. 1999. A dual-process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: An extension of terror management theory. Psychological Review 106.4: 835–845.

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    Distinct defensive responses are activated by thoughts of death that are conscious and those that are on the fringes of consciousness. Proximal defenses entail the suppression of death-related thoughts and are activated when thoughts of death are in current conscious attention. Distal terror management defenses entail maintaining self-esteem and faith in one’s cultural worldview and serve to control the potential for anxiety resulting from awareness of the inevitability of death. Available online.

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  • Routledge, Clay, Jamie Arndt, and Jamie L. Goldenberg. 2004. A time to tan: Proximal and distal effects of mortality salience on sun exposure intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 30.10: 1347–1358.

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    Shows that when concerns about death were in focal attention, participants report greater intentions to protect themselves from dangerous sun exposure. In contrast, when thoughts about death were outside of focal attention, participants decreased interest in sun protection. Available online.

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Criticisms

Terror management theory has been criticized on conceptual and empirical grounds. Two issues of Psychological Inquiry (see Pyszczynski, et al. 1997 and Martin and Erber 2006) are exclusively devoted to such criticisms by various authors, and each issue includes a response by terror management theorists. Pyszczynski, et al. 1997 provides an overview of a decade of terror management theory and research followed by critical commentaries. Martin and Erber 2006 presents an introductory overview of more recent criticisms of terror management theory.

Meaning and Uncertainty

Some theorists argue that mortality salience effects are not due to death anxiety per se; rather, death is a particular (and a particularly vivid) example of a broader category of more fundamental psychological concerns. McGregor, et al. 2001 argues that people are primarily motivated to reduce psychological uncertainty rather than to deny death, and shows that manipulations of psychological uncertainty produce the same effects generally obtained by a mortality salience induction. Heine, et al. 2006 argues that people are primarily motivated to maintain meaning rather than to deny death, and shows that manipulations of meaninglessness produce the same effects generally obtained by mortality salience inductions. Pyszczynski, et al. 2006 argues on conceptual and empirical grounds that death is a uniquely significant human concern and that rival alternatives cannot account for existing terror management research.

  • Heine, Steven J., Travis Proulx, and Kathleen D. Vohs. 2006. The meaning maintenance model: On the coherence of social motivations. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10.2: 88–110.

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    Authors argue that people are primarily motivated to maintain meaning rather than to deny death, and claim to show that manipulations of meaninglessness produce the same effects generally obtained by mortality salience inductions. Available online.

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  • McGregor, Ian, Mark P. Zanna, J. G. Holmes, and S. J. Spencer. 2001. Compensatory conviction in the face of personal uncertainty: Going to extremes and being oneself. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80.3: 472–488.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.80.3.472Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Authors argue that people are primarily motivated to reduce psychological uncertainty rather than to deny death, and claim to show that manipulations of psychological uncertainty produce the same effects generally obtained by a mortality salience induction.

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  • Pyszczynski, Thomas, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Molly Maxfield. 2006. On the unique psychological import of the human awareness of mortality: Theme and variations. Psychological Inquiry 17.4: 328–356.

    DOI: 10.1080/10478400701369542Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Terror management theorists argue on conceptual and empirical grounds that death is a uniquely significant human concern and that rival alternatives are theoretically challenged, lack empirical corroboration, and cannot account for existing terror management research.

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Evolutionary Psychology

Navarrete and Fessler 2005 argues that terror management theory is fatally flawed because it is based on Darwin’s original view of evolution characterized by an individual instinct for self-preservation rather than on more contemporary conceptions of evolution based on genetic replication, and that it is inconceivable that uniquely human concerns about death could have influenced the evolution of cultural worldviews, which developed solely to foster social solidarity and social cohesion. Landau, et al. 2007 argues in response that terror management theory is consistent with modern evolutionary principles, and that many terror management research findings cannot be explained by current evolutionary alternatives.

  • Landau, Mark J., Sheldon Solomon, Thomas Pyszczynski, and Jeff Greenberg. 2007. On the compatibility of terror management theory and perspectives on human evolution. Evolutionary Psychology 5.3: 476–519.

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    Terror management theorists argue that the theory is consistent with contemporary conceptions of evolution, that death denial is a plausible selection pressure for uniquely human evolutionary adaptations, and claims that cultural worldviews are unrelated to concerns about death cannot account for a large number of existing empirical findings.

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  • Navarrete, Carlos D., and D. M. T. Fessler. 2005. Normative bias and adaptive challenges: A relational approach to coalitional psychology and a critique of terror management theory. Evolutionary Psychology 3.1: 297–325.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2004.09.012Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Criticizes terror management theory on the grounds that it was framed in terms of an outmoded conception of evolution by natural selection; that death anxiety cannot plausibly influence human evolutionary adaptations; and that cultural worldviews evolved to foster social coordination and social solidarity and have nothing to do with death denial.

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LAST MODIFIED: 11/29/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199828340-0058

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