In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Experimental Existential Psychology

  • Introduction
  • Experimental Existential Psychology
  • Methodological Considerations in Mortality Salience Research
  • Alternative Existential Approaches

Psychology Experimental Existential Psychology
Cathy R. Cox, Robert B. Arrowood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0226


Existential psychology developed in an attempt to understand how people cope with the realities of existence. This includes how individuals think about themselves (e.g., self-awareness), how they relate to others, how they create a meaningful and satisfying life, and how they manage anxieties associated with the inevitability of death. The existential tradition emerged in the field of psychology in the late 19th century in response to Freud’s psychoanalytic thought. For example, Otto Rank was one of the first theorists to propose an existential perspective to understand human behavior by arguing for the existence of both life and death fears in human development and in persons’ relations with others (see Rank 1936, cited under Close Relationships). Similar reasoning can be seen in Frankl 1959 (cited under Meaning) on meaning and suffering, May 1953 (cited under Psychopathology) on anxiety and loneliness, and Fromm 1941 (cited under Freedom) on the pursuit and avoidance of freedom, as well as in Becker 1973 (cited under Politics), Lifton 1979 (cited under Creativity and Exploration), and Yalom 1980 (cited under “Big Five” Existential Concerns). For Yalom, a major concern for humans is their confrontation with mortality awareness. Although people may try to avoid thoughts of death, meaninglessness, freedom, and existential isolation, these are worries that cannot be brushed aside, impacting motivation and behavior whether persons realize it or not. Unfortunately, much of the work in psychology during the 20th century did not explore existential issues, given that they were too vague and subjective to be studied with scientific methods. With the rise of social psychology in the 1950s and 1960s, however, many theorists and researchers recognized that it was possible to experimentally examine how people are influenced by self-awareness, along with the dilemmas of existence. The purpose of this entry is to review research from the past thirty years on the experimental existential tradition in psychology. This will begin with a discussion of five primary concerns: death, freedom, identity, isolation, and meaning. Following this, a review of terror management theory and research will be provided (see Death and Experimental Existential Psychology), as it is the most elaborate and empirically established approach in experimental existential psychology to date. Finally, given that a wide range of existential concerns are actively being explored by researchers in the field, the Ancillary Research section will explore such topics as human/animal similarities, health, psychopathology, spirituality, interpersonal relationships, and intergroup conflict.

The “Big Five” Existential Concerns

Yalom 1980 argues that there are four existential concerns that people must face: death, isolation, freedom, and meaning. Although individuals may go through life unaffected by these anxieties, Yalom proposed that they are in everyone’s subconscious mind, with the potential to surface at one time or another (e.g., a confrontation with one’s own mortality, the collapse of a meaning-providing schema). The most threatening issue, according to Heidegger 1962, Kierkegaard 1957, and May 1957, is the awareness and inevitability of personal death. From an existential point of view, this conflict arises from heightened mortality salience combined with the simultaneous wish for continued existence. A second concern is that of isolation; that is, an inability to completely connect with another person. This attribute is closely associated with death, as persons enter existence alone and must depart from it by themselves. Drawing from Buber 1970 and Fromm 1956, the dynamic conflict here is between the awareness of fundamental isolation from others and a wish to merge and be part of a larger whole. Third, although freedom is generally believed to be a positive concept, according to Sartre 1956, it refers to a complete lack of external structure in life. Humans are expected to create their own selves and the world around them. At the same time, however, they are aware that there is no ground beneath them (i.e., randomness, nothingness). A conflict emerges from persons’ awareness of freedom and groundlessness while at the same time craving some sort of structure. Finally, Frankl 1972 proposes that persons are meaning-seeking creatures. This is evident in humans’ ability to see patterns in random stimuli or to perceive whole objects when presented as being incomplete. In the same way that people attempt to organize random stimuli, an existential perspective would suggest that individuals search for a pattern to explain a meaningful existence. More recently, Greenberg, et al. 2004 and Pyszczynski, et al. 2015 have suggested a fifth concern for individuals: identity. This is associated with having a clear sense of who one is and how one fits into the world. It is distinguished from having limited self-insight, from not having clear boundaries between the self and others, and/or in experiencing conflicts within the person (e.g., self-monitoring). The following sections review each of these topics in more detail, along with a discussion of empirical evidence in the field.

  • Buber, M. 1970. I and thou. Translated by W. Kaufmann. New York: Charles Scribner’s.

    The basic premise of this book is that people find a sense of meaning through their relationships with others. According to Buber, the ultimate relationship is that with God (i.e., the Eternal Thou).

  • Frankl, V. 1972. The feeling of meaninglessness: A challenge to psychotherapy and philosophy. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette Univ. Press.

    A collection of papers that focuses on man’s search for meaning. Frankl argues that even if our basic needs are fulfilled, existential concerns may disable persons from living life to the fullest.

  • Fromm, E. 1956. The art of loving. New York: Harper & Row.

    According to Fromm, humans seek romantic love and marriage (in part) due to feelings of alienation and loneliness. This is difficult, however, unless persons develop a total personality, experience a love of one’s neighbor, and have true humility and discipline.

  • Greenberg J., S. L. Koole, T. Pyszczynski. 2004. Handbook of experimental existential psychology. New York: Guilford.

    Contributions by eminent scholars in the field of psychology, providing a broad overview of many existential issues and empirical research, as of 2004. Includes chapters on objectification, human-nature relations, risk-taking, religion, morality, nostalgia, self-identification, free will, autonomy, and other topics.

  • Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and time. Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. London: Blackwell.

    Divided into two parts, this work by Heidegger seeks to define the temporality of existence and the idea of time as a limit in questioning the meaning of being.

  • Kierkegaard, S. 1957. The concept of dread. Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    For Kierkegaard, anxiety or “dread” results from the freedom to do what we want even in the most terrifying of possibilities (what he referred to as the “dizziness of freedom”). There are benefits to our anxiety, as it informs us of our choices, brings about self-awareness and personal responsibility, and increases conscious self-reflection.

  • May, R. 1957. The meaning of anxiety. New York: W. W. Norton.

    This book suggests that the experience of anxiety is essential to humanity (e.g., increasing creativity, sharpening sensibilities, preserving human existence, and so on). May argues that anxiety can contribute to self-realization by confronting and coping with it.

  • Pyszczynski, T., D. Sullivan, and J. Greenberg. 2015. Experimental existential psychology: Living in the shadow of the facts of life. In APA handbook of personality and social psychology. Vol. 1, Attitudes and social cognition. Edited by M. Mikulincer and P. R. Shaver, 279–308. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    An overview of theory and research on the consequences of existential threat, including its history and current status, as of 2015.

  • Sartre, J. P. 1956. Being and nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology. Translated by H. E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library.

    This account of existentialism focuses on the consciousness of being, freedom and responsibility, bad faith (i.e., when persons hide their freedom from themselves), and close relationships with others. Sartre argues that people develop an understanding of themselves through an awareness of what they are and are not.

  • Yalom, I. 1980. Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

    Drawing from clinical experience, empirical research, philosophy, and related disciplines, this book provides a comprehensive overview of the four ultimate concerns of life: death, freedom, existential isolation, and meaningless.

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