In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Terror Management Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Psychology Terror Management Theory
Sheldon Solomon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0058


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.

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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.

    NNNFirst 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.

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

    NNNAccessible 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.

  • 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.

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

  • 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: 10.1111/0591-2385.1241998124

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

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