AGS Sunday Seminar June, 2004


(Presented by David Hewson)


“Terror Management Theory”


"Be afraid, be VERY afraid." 

Dare you come to this day on terror?
If you are interested in some of the causes of conflict between different cultural groups (like the 9/11 terrorist event) then this may be the day for you. 

Come learn about a new branch of psychology. 

Presented from a GS viewpoint.                


~ Programme ~


1.    “Introduction”
Some background material -
  * Existentialism
  * Terror Management Theory

2.    Personal, Community, National and Global Issues and Responses.
    ~ Lunch: Gavan’s Gastronomic Delectations in the Garden ~


3.    GS Perspectives



4.          ~ End ~






AGS Sunday Seminar June, 2004


“Terrorism – a GS Perspective”



Section 1 ~ ~


Terror Management Theory
"Be afraid, be VERY afraid."  Dare you come to this day on terror?
If you are interested in some of the causes of conflict between different cultural groups (like the 9/11 terrorist event) then this may be the day for you.  Come learn about a new branch of psychology.  Hopefully presented from a GS viewpoint.  (
See notes below for more on this topic)


Presented by David Hewson


Terror management theory is a theory about how fear of death underlies much of what we do. To more fully appreciate terror management theory, one should first understand a bit about existentialism, the branch of philosophy on which it is based. Keeping in mind that there are many varieties of existentialism and even more individual interpretations of the philosophy, I’ll identify some general themes that run throughout existential philosophy. More detail on terror management theory follows.

I. Existentialism

First, we as human beings are born into a universe that is indifferent to us at best or hostile at worst. Also, different people are "thrown into" different life circumstances that are beyond their control (e.g., being born into a disadvantaged social group.) Inherently, our existence is meaningless; it is up to us to imbue our lives with meaning. Given that we are all born into circumstances that we did not choose, we may attempt to rise above these circumstances or somehow find meaning in them.

How do we do this? According to existentialists, we have free will. We can therefore exercise this free will to make choices, and it is through making choices that we grow. In short, we are responsible for defining ourselves and our lives. As a result of the choices we make, we are constantly becoming. For many existentialists, "to exist" is synonymous with "to change." We are constantly becoming something other than what we were before. Growth and development are lifelong processes.

We as humans are in a presumably unique position as compared to other species, given that we are forward-looking and can anticipate some aspects of the future. Ultimately, the future brings death for all of us. Confronting this realisation produces anxiety. Existentialists have argued that one way to assuage this anxiety to some degree (which is the best we can hope for) is to busy our lives with choices made through the exercise of free will. If we focus our attention on self-improvement, we manage to keep some of our anticipatory anxiety at bay.

Finally, although we are able to look to the future to some degree, or in a very general way (e.g., knowing that we will die), there is obviously much that we cannot anticipate. For existentialists, however, this does not absolve us of responsibility for our actions. Rather, freedom brings with it responsibility: When we freely choose a course of action, we must accept the consequences of that action, even if negative. [This relates to Ed MacNeal's formulation of action-consequences as a non-elementalistic pair.]

II. Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory (TMT) was proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991). Although TMT is woven with many existential threads, it is a social psychological theory whose predictions have been borne out through research.

TMT assumes that death-related anxiety is our most fundamental source of anxiety. Why?  Like other species, we have a basic self-preservation drive. Combining this drive with the realisation that we will die creates in us a paralysing terror of death. In order to ward off this anxiety, according to terror management theorists, we create and participate in culture. By participating in culture, we are able to provide our lives with order, structure, meaning, and even permanence. There are many ways in which culture gives our lives permanence, thus providing us with a sense of immortality. One may attempt to secure eternal life, for example, by adopting a particular religious belief system. Or, through one’s contributions to society, be they ideas, tangible objects, or children, a person ensures that he or she will live on in a symbolic sense.

Terror management theorists argue that much of human activity has the goal of defining and establishing ourselves as integral players in this cultural drama. Because culture is a social construction, meaning that it is constructed by and for human beings, our sense of ourselves as valuable players in the cultural drama comes from other people. Specifically, we are dependent on other people’s ideas about how well we are living up to the standards of the cultural worldview. TMT, therefore, views self-esteem as derived largely from others. According to terror management theorists, then, the cultural anxiety buffer is comprised of two parts: a cultural worldview and high self-esteem.

The theory makes interesting predictions for how people will behave in particular situations. First, TMT predicts that, if one’s anxiety buffers (self-esteem or cultural worldview) are weakened or strengthened, one will react by becoming either more or less anxious, respectively, in response to threats. Evidence bears out these predictions. Research has shown, for example, that people whose self-esteem is boosted by receiving bogus positive feedback on a personality or intelligence test report less anxiety in response to a graphic death-related video (Greenberg et al, 1992). Second, the theory predicts that reminding people of their mortality should increase their need for self-esteem and their commitment to their cultural worldview, given that these structures buffer anxiety. Consistent with this hypothesis, research has shown that making death salient to people leads them to recommend harsher punishments for those who deviate from the cultural worldview, such as moral transgressors. Conversely, mortality salience leads people to praise those who uphold the cultural worldview (see Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999).

What’s the latest in TMT research? This year, an article was published that showed that people use two types of defence strategies against thoughts of death: proximal defences and distal defences (Greenberg, Arndt, Simon, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 2000). Specifically, this research showed that people make use of these two defence strategies under different circumstances, and in a different temporal order. When people’s mortality was made salient and these death-relevant thoughts remained in their immediate conscious awareness, they attempted to deny their vulnerability to death, thus suppressing or blocking out death-related thoughts. This denial of vulnerability operated as a proximal defence. People whose mortality had been made salient but for whom death-relevant thoughts were not in immediate conscious awareness used distal defences. The distal defence consisted of affirming a cultural worldview.

One of the attractive aspects of TMT is its ability to combine the psychological and the sociocultural. Although sociocultural institutions have long been a subject of inquiry, no psychological explanation of why these institutions exist has been offered until TMT. Managing our death-related terror seems a plausible and provocative reason for immersing ourselves in the largely arbitrarily-constructed culture that we have created.

III. Sources

Greenberg, J., Arndt, J., Simon, L., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (2000). Proximal and distal defences in response to reminders of one's mortality: Evidence of a temporal sequence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 91-99.

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of the need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Public and private self (pp. 189-212). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., Rosenblatt, A., Burling, J., Lyon, D., & Simon, L. (1992). Assessing the terror management analysis of self-esteem: Converging evidence of an anxiety-buffering function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 913-922.

Harmon-Jones, E., Simon, L., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & McGregor, H. (1997). Terror-management theory and self-esteem: Evidence that increased self-esteem reduces mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 24-36.

Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (1999). A dual process model of defence against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: An extension of terror management theory. Psychological Review, 106, 835-845.

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (1991). A terror management theory of social behaviour: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. In M. E. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 24, pp. 93-159). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.



(Notes from "In The Wake of 9/11, The Psychology of Terror")

Two fundamental questions the authors try to address:

  1. Why do people need self esteem?
  2. Why do people have difficulty in peacefully coexisting with other humans who are different from them? (i.e. have different world views.)

TMT is interdisciplinary (just like GS). It combines ideas from: anthropology, biology, philosophy, psychology and sociology, etc.

It also has some other similar views to GS:

"Cognitively, we become time-binding animals (Becker, 1962/1971 "The birth and death of meaning"), able to reflect on the past and anticipate the future and, in so doing, enhance our prospects for survival in the present."

Humans like animals share a biological predisposition toward self preservation.

Humans, unlike animals, are able to imagine things that currently don't exist. We can look into the future. Far into the future. And hence we can foresee our inevitable deaths.

The result: Potentially overwhelming TERROR.

Another important aspect of human mentality is that humans are both conscious and self-conscious. By "conscious" they mean that we are aware of our awareness. (I.e. we can make maps of maps and map the map making process, ad infinitum.)

By "self-conscious" they mean that we can see ourselves as objects of our own subjective inquiry. (I.e. we can map the territory that is ourselves.)

And because of these abilities we are aware of the terror.

TMT's core proposition is: "…culture's allow people to control the ever present terror of death by convincing them that they are beings of enduring significance living in a meaningful reality. …

Hence people must sustain

  1. faith in a culturally derived worldview that imbues reality with order, stability, meaning and permanence…
  2. a belief that one is a significant contributor to this meaningful reality."

E.g. you have to not only believe in Christianity but you have to be a good Christian also to get to heaven.

Hence the need for self esteem.

Note: Culture is not just religion. It includes religion along with nationalism and other things. E.g. one could be an atheist in the culture of Mao's China and use this culture to gain meaning, etc.

Of course there are other ways to "immortality" than religion. I.e. to make you feel as though death is not the final end.

But most people want literal immortality though and this is one of the main appeals of most religions.

Now why the conflict?

The authors came up with the following theory about how people cope with reminders of death in such a way as to avoid the terror.

The process goes in the following steps:

  1. The person gets a significant reminder about death and their own mortality.
  2. They use conscious (primal) defences to remove the thoughts from consciousness.
  3. This leads to an increase in unconscious access to thoughts about death.
  4. They use unconscious (distal) defences to cope with this. These are things that defend their world view or bolster their self esteem.
  5. Accessible thoughts about death are reduced and potential terror is averted.

If they can't do a world view defence or bolster self esteem then indirect access to terror thoughts increases.

So what are the defence mechanisms involved here?

Primal Defences

Death threats are confronted with immediate behavioural responses to avoid the threat (like hitting the brakes or getting medical treatment) or by psychological defences that remove the troubling thoughts from consciousness.

Defensive strategies in response to conscious thoughts of death include:

  1. Distracting oneself from the problem. I.e. avoid thinking about it.
  2. Minimising the apparent threat by altering perceptions of its severity or consequences. I.e. situation redefinition or reframing.
  3. Denying vulnerability to the threat to me (index) or emphasising its temporal (dating) remoteness. E.g. "not me, not now" . "I'm going to live till 125."

I.e. these are proximal in that they are used straight away after a reminder of one's impending death.

Distal Defences

People defend their worldview or try to bolster their self esteem.

The effect of distal defence works the most after a delay. I.e. After the proximal defence mechanisms remove thoughts of death from consciousness to the sub conscious.

Mentioning death again right before a test brings back the proximal defences.

So the distal world view defence works most:

  1. After a delay.
  2. Subconsciously. E.g. subliminal messages work here.
  3. More biased when reacting in a "gut thinking" mode than when acting rationally. (Maybe there's a signal to symbol delayed reaction mechanism here.)
  4. When self esteem is low. So high self esteem people are more tolerant.
  5. When you don't have a close relationship. I.e. Close relationships buffer one against death thoughts. E.g. love from partner bolsters self-esteem. This works for about 2/3 of people.
  6. With more conservative people or those who behave dogmatically. More liberals are tolerant.
  7. When people forget about the value of tolerance. So priming people about the value of tolerance leads to more tolerance.  [I think that GS promotes some sorts of tolerance.]
  8. Sex differences: Men relate more to country and patriotic thoughts of the larger group. Women concentrate on immediate personal relationships.

Now how do people defend their world view or react to other world views?

How people have reacted to others with different worldviews:

  1. Conversion. I.e. we convert to the others worldview. E.g. like a Jew becoming a Catholic. Sociology shows that this is rare for people over the age of 30. Most conversions happen between 15 and 30.
  2. Derogation. We defend our own worldview by attacking the others. E.g. belittling it or them.
  3. Assimilation. I.e. We try to convince the other people with different worldviews to dispose of their "weird" beliefs and adopt ours instead. E.g. Mormon missionaries.
  4. Accommodation. We incorporate appealing aspects of the alternative worldview into our own worldview. E.g hippies wearing of alternative clothing like jeans got incorporated in mainstream culture with designer jeans.
  5. Annihilation. If others persist in holding threatening worldviews and they won't join us then we try to beat them. I.e. kill them or expel them from our area. E.g. the Spanish inquisition and a host of wars from the Middle East to Ireland and from India to Cambodia. Not to mention 9/11 and terrorism, etc.
  6. Etc.  [my comment:  Maybe GS practitioners can think of other more sane methods of coping with differences.?]

So when people use the Annihilation, Derogation or Assimilation methods we have varying degrees of conflict.


The obvious is not always true, so the authors conducted many experiments to check out their theories.

Typical experiment:

  1. Death salience(a vivid reminder of ones own mortality) was given to the subject.
  2. Then other testing activities or just a delay occurred.
  3. Finally test the subject's behaviour. Like looking at their worldview defence. I.e. their experiments mainly tested for distal defences.  E.g. How much very hot sauce would they add to others food?


Similar Worldview

Different Worldview

Statistically significant

No death salience

15 grams

17 grams


Death salience

11 grams

26 grams


So you can see that the experimental subjects were significantly nicer to people like themselves and nastier to others after a reminder of their mortality.

They tested a lot of people from Judges to stage I psychology students. From inside the lab to out on the street. All the experiments supported their theories.

How to cope with fears

The authors suggest the following methods to help others cope with death fears:

  1. Provide social support and help them develop meaningful relationships with others.
  2. Provide meaning and understanding. E.g. A belief in symbolic or literal immortality reduces fear of death.
  3. Provide opportunities for self esteem building. [RET has some ideas here that I see as an improvement on "self-esteem building".]

Summary and comment

So cultural worldviews provide (amongst other functions) an anxiety reducing function by providing a sense of meaning and a means for attainting either symbolic or literal immortality. Cultural constructions are maintained over time primarily by social consensus. Psychologically the function of a culture is not to illuminate the truth but to obscure the horrifying possibility, that death means the permanent annihilation of the self.

Hence I see a bit of a conflict of goals here between science (&GS) who's aim (to me) is to find the (fact based) truth and cultures who's aim is to reduce anxiety by hiding the truth.

If you want to know more, I suggest you read the book.





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