Contemplating Death Changes How You Think

February 10, 2016

If death is the final taboo, it might not be for much longer. There has, in recent years, been increasing effort to promote conversations about death and dying, both in the home and in more public settings. For example, death cafes, first launched in Switzerland in 2004, have spread around the world, enabling people to speak about their fears over cake and coffee.

Our reluctance to talk about death is often taken as evidence that we are afraid, and therefore suppress thoughts about it. However, there is little direct evidence to support that we are. So what is a “normal” amount of death anxiety? And how does it manifest itself?

udging by studies using questionnaires, we seem more bothered by the prospect of losing our loved ones than we do about dying ourselves. Such studies also show that we worry more about the dying process – the pain and loneliness involved, for example – than about the end of life itself. In general, when we are asked if we are afraid to die, most of us deny it, and report only mild levels of anxiety. The minority who report high levels of death anxiety are even considered psychologically abnormal – thanatophobic – and recommended for treatment.

On the other hand, our tendency to report only low levels of death anxiety might be a result of our reluctance to admit to our fear, to others and ourselves. Based on this hypothesis, social psychologists have, for almost 30 years now, examined the social and psychological effects of being confronted with our own mortality. In well over 200 experiments, individuals have been instructed to imagine themselves dying.

The first study of this kind was conducted on US municipal court judges, who were asked to set bond for an alleged prostitute in a hypothetical scenario. On average, judges who were confronted with their mortality beforehand set a much higher bail than those who were not confronted – $455 versus $50 (£315 vs £35). Since then, many other effects have been found among groups including the general population in many different countries.

Besides making us more punitive, thinking about death also increases our nationalistic bias, makes us more prejudiced against other racial, religious and age groups, and leads to other such parochial attitudes. Taken together, these dozens of studies show that being reminded of death strengthens our ties to the groups we belong to, to the detriment of those who are different from us.

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