How Thinking About Death Changes Us

June 22, 2018

You and everyone you’ve ever known will someday die. According to some psychologists, this uncomfortable truth constantly lurks in the back of our minds and ultimately drives everything we do, from choosing to attend church, eat vegetables and go to the gym to motivating us to have children, write books and create companies.

For healthy people, death usually lurks in the back of our minds, exerting its influence on a subconscious level. “Most of the time, we go through our days unaware, not thinking of our mortality,” says Chris Feudtner, a pediatrician and ethicist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Philadelphia. “We cope by focusing on the things more directly in front of us.”

What would happen, though, if the ambiguity surrounding our own demise were taken away? What if we all suddenly were told the exact date and means of our deaths? While this is, of course, impossible, careful consideration of this hypothetical scenario can shed light on our motivations as individuals and societies – and hint at how to best spend our limited time on this Earth.

First, let’s establish what we know about how death shapes behaviour in the real world. In the 1980s, psychologists became interested in how we deal with the potentially overwhelming anxiety and dread that come with the realisation that we are nothing more than “breathing, defecating, self-conscious pieces of meat that can die at any time”, as Sheldon Solomon, a psychology professor at New York’s Skidmore College, puts it.

Terror management theory, the term Solomon and his colleagues coined for their findings, posits that humans embrace culturally constructed beliefs – that the world has meaning, for example, and that our lives have value – in order to fend off what would otherwise be paralysing existential terror.

In more than 1,000 peer-reviewed experiments, researchers have found that, when reminded that we are going to die, we cling harder to foundational cultural beliefs and strive to boost our sense of self-worth. We also become more defensive of our beliefs and react with hostility to anything that threatens them.

Even very subtle nods at mortality – a 42.8 millisecond flash of the word “death” across a computer screen, a conversation that takes place within sight of a funeral home – are enough to trigger behavioural changes.

What do some of those changes look like? When reminded of death, we treat those who are similar to us in looks, political slant, geographic origin and religious beliefs more favourably. We become more contemptuous and violent towards people who do not share those similarities. We profess a deeper commitment to romantic partners who validate our worldviews. And we are more inclined to vote for heavy-handed charismatic leaders who incite fear of outsiders.

We also become more nihilistic, drinking, smoking, shopping and eating in excess – and we are less concerned about caring for the environment.

Should everyone suddenly learn the date and means of their demise, society could – and likely would – become more racist, xenophobic, violent, war-mongering, self-harming and environmentally destructive than it already is.

This isn’t pre-ordained, however. Researchers like Solomon ultimately hope that, by becoming aware of the expansive negative effects that death anxiety triggers, we might be able to counteract them.

In fact, scientists have already recorded a few examples of people bucking these general trends.

Buddhist monks in South Korea, for example, do not respond this way to reminders of death.

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