Psychology professors Solomon (Skidmore Coll.), Greenberg (Univ. of Arizona) and Pyszczynski (Univ. of Colorado, Colorado Springs) follow up their study of the psychological effects of 9/11 on the American population (In the Wake of 9-11: the Psychology of Terror, 2003) with a look at how the knowledge of mortality impacts human culture.
The authors’ contention that fear of death has been a primary driving force of human culture is controversial, but its relevance in incontestable. They began working together on the elaboration of what they now call “Terror Management Theory” in the 1970s when they were doctoral candidates in experimental social psychology. Although other species appear to mourn their dead, only humans are aware of their own mortality and terrified by this knowledge. “The awareness of death,” write the authors, “arose as a byproduct of early humans' burgeoning self-awareness…hurling our terrified and demoralized ancestors into the psychological abyss.” This inspired their creation of “a supernatural universe that afforded a sense of control over life and death” and the possibility of immortality. In the authors' view, it was the practice of religious rituals associated with these beliefs that spurred the development of social organization and technology, as well as medical advances. The authors offer accounts of their experiments as evidence to buttress their contention that under stress, we look for social stability. In one, subjects were asked to evaluate candidates’ statements in a hypothetical gubernatorial election. After subjects were given a reminder of death, their choices switched dramatically to favor a charismatic leader. Conversely, challenges to the accepted social order were shown to evoke thoughts of death. The authors also examine how we are motivated by conscious thoughts of death, subliminal reminders of which we are consciously unaware can elicit more powerful, potentially destructive defenses responses.
Insightful but not entirely convincing.