Terror Management Theory

Terror Management Theory Definition

Terror management theory is an empirically supported theory developed to explain the psychological functions of self-esteem and culture. The theory proposes that people strive to sustain the belief they are significant contributors to a meaningful universe to minimize the potential for terror engendered by their awareness of their own mortality. Cultures provide their members with meaning-imbuing worldviews and bases of self-esteem to serve this terror management function.

Terror Management Theory Background

Former University of Kansas graduate student colleagues Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski developed terror management theory in 1984. These social psychologists were searching for answers to two basic questions about human behavior: Why do people need self-esteem? Why do different cultures have such a difficult time coexisting peacefully? The trio found potential answers to these questions in the writings of anthropologist Ernest Becker. Becker integrated insights from psychoanalysis, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy into a framework for understanding the motives that drive human behavior. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski designed terror management theory to summarize, simplify, and elaborate Becker’s scholarly synthesis into a unified theory from which they could generate new testable hypotheses regarding the psychological functions of self-esteem and culture, and thereby address the two basic questions they originally posed.

The Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory begins with two simple assumptions. The first is that, being evolved animals with a wide range of biological systems serving survival, humans have a strong desire to stay alive. The second is that, unlike other animals, humans have evolved cognitive abilities to think abstractly; to think in terms of past, present, and future; and to be aware of their own existence. Although these cognitive abilities provide many adaptive advantages, they have led to the realization that humans are mortal, vulnerable to all sorts of threats to continued existence and that death, which thwarts the desire to stay alive, is inevitable. According to the theory, the juxtaposition of the desire to stay alive with the knowledge of one’s mortality creates an ever-present potential to experience existential terror, the fear of no longer existing. To keep the potential terror concerning mortality at bay, people need to sustain faith in a meaning-providing cultural worldview and the belief they are significant contributors to that meaningful reality (self-esteem). By psychologically living in a world of absolute meaning and enduring significance, people can obscure the possibility that they are really just transient animals in a purposeless universe destined only to absolute annihilation upon death.Terror Management Theory

The terror management functions of worldviews and self-esteem emerge over the course of childhood. Parents are the initial basis of security for the small vulnerable child and convey the core concepts and values of the prevailing cultural worldview. Throughout socialization, religious, social, and educational institutions reinforce and further elaborate this worldview. As part of this process, parents impose conditions of worth on the child that reflect the culture’s customs and standards of value. These conditions must be met to sustain the parental love and protection and, later, the approval of one’s peers, teachers, and cultural ideals and authority figures. In this way, believing in and living up to the values of the culture confer self-esteem and become the individual’s basis of psychological security. As the child matures, the limits of the parents become apparent and the basis of security gradually shifts to the culture’s broader spiritual and secular ideals and figures. Each cultural worldview offers its own bases of self-esteem, such that what bolsters self-esteem in one culture might not in another.

The most obvious examples of how worldviews provide the basis for terror management are religious worldviews such as Christianity and Islam, in which one’s earthly purpose is to serve one’s deity, after which those who have been true to the teachings of the deity will be rewarded with eternal life. Indeed, a spiritual dimension and concept of eternal soul had been central to all known cultures until the rise of science-based secular worldviews in the 19th and 20th centuries. These forms of literal immortality (or death transcendence) are supplemented by symbolic modes of immortality offered by secular components of culture. Symbolic immortality can be achieved in modern society through identification with collectives and causes that transcend individual death, such as one’s nation; it can also be achieved through offspring, inheritances, memorials, and many forms of cultural achievement in the arts and sciences (novels, paintings, sculptures, discoveries, etc.). Thus, as a result of the socialization process, people everywhere live out their lives ensconced within a culturally derived orderly and meaningful construal of reality in which they strive to be significant beings qualified for transcendence of death through an eternal soul and/or permanent contributions to the world.

Terror Management Theory and Social Behavior

Terror management theory can help explain much of what has been learned about humans from history and the social sciences. People by and large conform to their culture’s ways, following its norms and obeying authorities. People vehemently defend their cherished beliefs and rituals. Religious, governmental, and educational institutions reinforce cultural beliefs and values in myriad ways. Cultural belief systems provide explanations of where the world and humans come from, what humans should strive for, and how humans will persist in some form after individual death.

The theory answers basic questions about self-esteem and intercultural disharmony. Self-esteem, the belief that one is a valuable member of a meaningful universe, serves to minimize anxiety concerning one’s vulnerability and mortality. This view of self-esteem can help explain why those with high self-esteem fare much better in life than those with low self-esteem and why threats to self-esteem engender anxiety, anger, and defensive reactions, ranging from self-serving attributions to murder.

The theory also offers an explanation for what is perhaps humankind’s most tragic flaw: people’s inability to get along peacefully with those different from themselves. People who subscribe to a different cultural worldview call into question the validity of one’s own, thus threatening faith in one’s own basis of security. To minimize this threat, people derogate those with different beliefs, perhaps labeling them “ignorant savages”; try to convert them, as in missionary activity; or, in extreme historical cases such as Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, try to annihilate them.

Research on Terror Management Theory

Since its initial development, a body of more than 250 studies conducted in 14 different countries has supported terror management theory. Prominent contributors to this research in addition to the codevelopers of the theory include Linda Simon, Jamie Arndt, Jamie Goldenberg, Victor Florian, Mario Mikulincer, Mark Dechesne, Eva Jonas, and Mark Landau.

The first research based on the theory tested the idea that self-esteem protects people from anxiety. A series of studies showed that when people feel really good about themselves, they can deal with potentially threatening situations in an especially calm manner. One such study showed that when people are given a very favorable report regarding their personality, they perspire less while anticipating exposure to painful electric shocks. Follow-up research found that high self-esteem is particularly protective regarding death-related concerns.

Subsequent studies examined the idea that if self-esteem protects people from their concerns about death, making people think about their own mortality (known as mortality salience [MS]) should lead them to defend their self-esteem more fervently and strive harder to exhibit their worthiness. For example, research has shown that MS leads people who base their self-esteem partly on their driving ability to drive more boldly, those who base it partly on physical strength to display a stronger hand grip, and those who base it on their appearance to become more interested in tanning. In addition, MS leads people to give more generously to valued charities, to strengthen their identification with successful groups, and to reduce their identification with unsuccessful groups.

The other general terror management idea tested early on was that MS would lead people to strongly defend and uphold the beliefs and values of their own worldview. Using a variety of approaches, more than 100 studies have supported this idea. The first such study found that MS led municipal court judges to set higher bonds for an alleged prostitute in a hypothetical but realistic case. Many subsequent studies have supported the idea that MS increases harsh judgments of others who transgress the morals of one’s worldview. But MS also increases favorable treatment of those who uphold the worldview, such as heroes. Furthermore, MS increases favorable reactions to others who praise or otherwise validate one’s worldview and intensifies negative reactions to others who criticize or otherwise dispute the validity of one’s worldview. For example, a study using American participants found that MS increased positive reactions to a pro-U.S. essayist and negative reactions to an anti-U.S. essayist. Similarly, a study using Christian participants found that MS engendered positive reactions to a fellow Christian and negative reactions to a Jewish person.

These studies have reminded people of their mortality in a variety of ways and in comparison with many control conditions. Reminders of mortality have included two questions about one’s own death, gory accident footage, death anxiety scales, proximity to funeral homes and cemeteries, and exposure to extremely brief subliminal flashes of death-related words on a computer screen. Control conditions have reminded participants of neutral topics such as television, and aversive topics such as failure, worries after college, uncertainty, meaninglessness, pain, and social exclusion. These findings support the specific role of mortality concerns in MS effects.

Once support for these basic terror management hypotheses had accumulated, a variety of additional directions were pursued. One body of research explored the processes through which thoughts of death produce their effects. This research has shown these effects do not occur while people are consciously aware of death-related thoughts and are not triggered by consciously experienced emotion. Rather, thoughts of death that are outside of but close to consciousness signal heightened potential for anxiety, which triggers intensified efforts to bolster the worldview and one’s self-esteem. This work shows that cultural investments and self-esteem striving often serve existential needs outside of conscious awareness.

Another set of studies has examined the effects of MS on basic ways in which people preserve their sense that life is orderly and meaningful. This work shows that MS leads people to increase their preference for believing that the world is a just place, for art that seems meaningful, and for people who behave consistently and who conform to prevailing stereotypes of their group. Thus, concerns about mortality help shape people’s basic beliefs about their world.

Recent work in the political realm has shown that MS leads people to prefer charismatic leaders who emphasize the greatness of one’s own group and the need to heroically triumph over evil. Because of this latter tendency, MS increases support for violent actions against those designated by one’s culture as evil. One study found that although Iranian college students generally were more favorable to a fellow student who advocated peaceful strategies over one who advocated suicide bombings of American targets, after being reminded of their mortality, this preference reversed, with the students generally siding more with the advocate of suicide bombing. Similarly, although American college students were generally not supportive of extreme military actions against terrorists (including use of nuclear weapons) that would kill many innocent people, MS led politically conservative students to shift toward advocacy of such measures.

Research has also addressed the implications of the theory for people’s attitudes toward their own body and its activities. The physical body is what dooms humans to death and is therefore a continual reminder of mortal fate. MS should therefore lead people to distance from reminders of their animal nature. Consistent with this idea, studies have shown that MS reduces the appeal of physical aspects of sex and increases disgust reactions to reminders of the body. MS also leads men to deny attraction to women who arouse lustful feelings in them. This body of work helps explain why all cultures try to control and disguise bodily activities, imbuing them with ritualistic and spiritual elements.

Although MS increases wariness about physical aspects of sex, the theory also posits that romantic relationships serve a valuable terror management function. Love relations serve terror management by helping people feel that their lives are meaningful and that they are valued. Love relationships may also provide a fundamental source of comfort because, as attachment theory proposes, they hark back to the earliest security-providing relationships with one’s parents. In support of these ideas, a substantial body of research has shown that MS increases the desire for close relationships and appreciation of one’s romantic partner. In addition, threat to a relationship brings death-related thought close to consciousness.

Terror Management Theory Implications

Terror management research indicates that concern about mortality play a significant role in prejudice and investment in cultural stereotypes of women and minority groups. This work suggests a variety of measures that could help reduce intergroup violence, prejudice, and discrimination. Reducing the salience of mortality could be helpful. This would be difficult in places where violence is already prevalent but could be accomplished by minimizing actions likely to increase focus on death, whether by terrorists or military forces. The mass media could also play a role given the prevalence of reminders of death in news reports, films, and television shows.

A second possibility is to alter the cultural world-views in which we embed our children. Studies show that worldviews that are more global and that more strongly advocate tolerance of diverse beliefs and customs should reduce the propensity for feeling threatened and needing to defend against those with different customs and beliefs. Worldviews and cultural practices that reduce the fear of death, such as death awareness courses in schools, could also be helpful. Addressing the matter of our mortality in a thoughtful, conscious manner may encourage more constructive approaches to coping. Indeed, preliminary research suggests that extensive contemplation of death, long practiced in some forms of Buddhism, may actually promote tolerance rather than punitiveness toward others who do not conform to the dictates of one’s own worldview.

The theory has implications for individual mental health as well as intergroup harmony. People should function securely in their daily lives as long as they have strong faith in a meaning-providing worldview and believe they are significant contributors to that meaningful world. This suggests that buttressing these psychological resources should be an important goal for psychotherapists. This goal should also be embraced by educators and policy makers, for the culture at large provides the critical bases for viewing life as meaningful and oneself as significant. If the standards for significance offered by a culture are too narrow, too stringent, or too unavailable for many individuals or for certain minority groups within a culture, mental health problems, alternative subcultures, and drug abuse are likely to be prevalent.

The knowledge of mortality is a difficult problem that has haunted humanity since its emergence. Terror management theory offers insights into the productive and destructive ways people cope with this problem and thereby offers a psychological basis for considering potential avenues for optimizing modes of death transcendence.


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  4. Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2003). In the wake of September 11: The psychology of terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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