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Raw Concepts: Terror Management Theory

death mirror

I’ve been discussing the similarities between evolutionary psychology and “regular” psychology, and today I want to discuss a school of thought called Terror Management Theory. Psychology Today says:

The terror refered to in terror management theory (TMT) is that which is brought on by the awareness of the inevitible death of the self. According to TMT, the anxiety caused by mortality is a major motivator behind many human behaviors and cognitions, including self-esteem, ethno/religio-centrism, and even love.

I independently came up with a similar viewpoint in a series of posts I did early in the blog’s history called The Immortality Drive series. I never finished that series of posts because I discovered while in the middle of it that there was a famous Pulitzer Prize winning book that already discussed the same topic at length called The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. I decided to hold off on writing any more about the drive for immortality and denial of death until I read the book. I eventually did read the book and it was far deeper and more mind-blowing than the extent to which I had thought the subject through, and it made me really glad I stopped when I did.

I’ve been itching to write an indepth review of the book, but I feel I need to reread it first, but the gist of it comes down to the idea that the terror of inevitable death and how we choose to cope with that inevitability in our everyday lives motivates everything we do in life. The need to relieve this death anxiety motivates much of our behavior, like our need to feel better than other people, our need to have high self-esteem, our need to elevate people to heroic levels and create belief systems that we feel our bigger than ourselves, among other tendencies.

As Becker says in The Denial of Death:

the problem of heroics is the central one of human life, that it goes deeper into human nature than anything else because it is based on organismic narcissism and on the child’s need for self-esteem as the condition for his life. Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.

Becker goes on to say the human race is one that tends toward species narcissism, and if you look at much of our fiction you can see how this is so, as much of it is dedicated to what we call “the indomitable human spirit” and the fascination that beings like gods, demigods, demons, aliens, and supernatural beings have with the human race. Robots depicted as trying to learn to be human is a popular trope in fiction, as is the higher power that wants to conquer or eliminate humankind, which wins its reprieve by showing it’s innate greatness. Or how about the powerful being who falls in love with the human race despite its flaws because he recognizes its potential for greatness and makes earth his adopted home and even goes against his own race to defend them? Prometheus even stole fire from the gods on the behalf of the human race and was punished for it, with the implication being that Prometheus did it because he believed in the humankind’s potential, and that same human potential was found threatening even to Zeus, the ruler of the gods. This species narcissism is also present in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where God is said to have made man in his image. We are the only ones with souls, while it is debated whether or not any other species is allowed in heaven. The narcissism of the human species is so built into the fabric of society, our belief systems and myths, that it’s very hard to step outside of it and get a neutral perspective from which to observe it.

How is all this reflected in personal psychology? Individuals obsess over surviving and reproducing, and the field of psychology is about the cognitive adaptations, behavioral patterns, and coping systems we come up with in order to maximize our chances of surviving and reproducing. These cognitive adaptations, behavioral patterns, and coping systems are what Alfred Adler called a “life style.” (Adler coined the term “life style,” but what he meant by it is different than what the term means today.) “Personalities” are another term that can be used for these adaptation, patterns, and coping systems we develop to deal with life. According to Becker, we develop our approaches to life and the matters of surviving and reproducing in order to deal with the terror of inevitable death. By prolonging our lives as long as possible, by passing our genes into the next generation, by feeling a connection to past generations of our family, and by believing in a transcendent figure or belief system bigger than ourselves, we can feel like we transcend death.

How is this reflected in evolutionary psychology? Evolution is about the survival and reproduction of whole populations, and evolutionary psychology is about the cognitive adaptations, behavioral patterns, and coping systems human populations have undergone in order to maximize the survival and reproduction of the species. We call these psychological adaptations human nature, and it is roughly analagous to a personality, or what Adler described as a “lifestyle” in an individual. Just like individuals according to Terror Management Theory obsess over their personal deaths, our species obsesses over extinction, which is species-wide death. Surviving and reproducing is a way for the species to reduce its anxiety over extinction and simulate a feeling of immortality. By prolonging the existence of the currently living members of the species as long as possible, creating future generations of the human race, by feeling a connection to past generations of the human race, and by believing in a transcendent figure or belief system bigger than the human race, the human race can feel like it transcends extinction.

Just like the mental health of the individual at any given moment is largely the result of how he deals with the idea of his own mortality, the collective mental health of the human race is largely the result of how it deals with the possiblity of its own extinction.

Recommended Reading:

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

This book is a major mindfuck, to put it mildly. I can’t express enough how much of a paradigm shift this book created in my worldview. You can read more about it in the Recommended Reading page on the sidebar. It’s under the “Essentials and Fundamentals” section.

The Wikipedia page and PsychWiki pages on Terror Management Theory go into it in way more depth than I can in a short blog post.

11 Responses to “Raw Concepts: Terror Management Theory”


  1. Brutal. But, how about pleasure? the pleasure of growing, creating, connecting etc. It’s somewhat confusing for me that every shade of light gets defined against the darkness. You know… light isnt there just to deny the darkness. Light is a thing on its own. Life is not just the denial of death / while death is just the denial of life. In binary terms the 0 negates the 1… but the 1 is an AFFIRMATION. Not just the evasion (negation) of 0. Makes sense? there’s light.

    Bottom line I wonder why in psychology everything is framed as evasion, cover ups, fears, etc and running away from the horror, when the other side of the same movement is not dark, but light. I smell bias?


  2. Another angle. If we frame everything from the horror, running away from death etc, then if we stop all the bullshit, all the evasion, and we return to the source… there’s pain, there’s horror, there’s death, there’s truth. Except. For any of it to be pain, horror, etc, you have to have something to lose, you have to be attached to something. The nothingness and death only mean something because they are a loss of something else. For something to be “pain” you first need an organized sensible system that can be damaged and can experience such pain. The root of everything is not the 0 but the 1. The 1 becomes aware of the 0 and get’s scared, and runs away, sure. But this fear is not what’s driving the whole thing.

    The nothingness didnt organize into something because it was “scared”. But the something is scared to return to the nothingness. How about this impulse that goes from nothing to something. That one. Light right? pleasure. Life.


  3. I’m familiar with the book. Read it about a year ago.

    “The narcissism of the human species is so built into the fabric of society, our belief systems and myths, that it’s very hard to step outside of it and get a neutral perspective from which to observe it.”

    “The superficiality of men preferring height-weight proportionate women with .7 hip-waist ratios is so built into the fabric of our society…that it’s very hard to step outside of it and get a neutral perspective from which to observe it.”

    Notice any similarties, T.? Could it be the narcissism of the “HBD” crowd is similarly natural, ingrained, and beyond the bounds of moral judgement?

    Yohami:

    “The nothingness didnt organize into something because it was “scared”. But the something is scared to return to the nothingness. How about this impulse that goes from nothing to something. That one. Light right? pleasure. Life.”

    Quite true, Yohami. Once the original Whole evolved/organized into indivdual beings, the arrow points in only one direction — FORWARD. But this entails the willingness/strength to keep going in that direction, despite all the travails involved. The alternative is to seek peace by returning to the Oneness…the Wholeness..of non-differentiation, to a place where competition and status and standards didn’t exist. Much like a child yearning to return to his mother’s womb. This is why Nietzsche rightly observed that while Christianity was anti-life and promised a lot but delivered nothing real, at least Buddhism and the Eastern Tradition delivered SOMETHING, namely *inner peace*.

    But as Nietzsche also observed, this Eastern tradition was a symptom of a culture on the decline…Buddhism was merely a soporific to a culture which had lost the will to endure the pains and joys of fecund existence…and it is this anti-life philosophy to which Ricky seems to be headed toward.


  4. Notice any similarties, T.?

    Honestly, no. You lost me.


  5. “the terror of inevitable death and how we choose to cope with that inevitability in our everyday lives motivates everything we do in life. The need to relieve this death anxiety motivates much of our behavior, like our need to feel better than other people, our need to have high self-esteem, our need to elevate people to heroic levels and create belief systems that we feel our bigger than ourselves[...]Becker goes on to say the human race is one that tends toward ([race]-ed) narcissism, and if you look at much of our fiction you can see how this is so, as much of it is dedicated to what we call “the indomitable human spirit” and the fascination that beings like gods, demigods, demons, aliens, and supernatural beings have with the human race.” – Ricky Raw, summarizing Ernest Becker

    “Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

    Racism claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical factors beyond his control. This is the caveman’s version of the doctrine of innate ideas—or of inherited knowledge—which has been thoroughly refuted by philosophy and science. Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men.” — Ayn Rand

    Compare and contrast.


  6. It’s the “beyond the bounds of moral judgment” part that confuses me. I don’t get how you arrive to that.


  7. “It’s the “beyond the bounds of moral judgment” part that confuses me. I don’t get how you arrive to that.”

    I suppose that was a poor choice of words. “Intractable” would be better.

    Feminists (particularly the large ones) have all manner of articulate and “reasoned” arguments against the male tendency to “objectify” women, i.e., find height-weight proportionate women hot. They would probably view this tendency in males as a primitive thing, something to be overcome through the judicious use of reason, in order to bring our current state of affairs closer to something more “equitable” and “humane”.

    Should they be any less passionate about their cause as you are with respect to narcissism in general, and HBD in particular? Rhetorical.

    That said, Becker’s book is a must read, and the first 2 or 3 chapters are mindblowing. Keep in mind his closing chapter, however. He makes clear that the scientific rationalist hope of providing man with “meaning” in this universe is a chimera.

    As an atheist, I have to say his book is the best argument I have ever seen put forward to support a belief in God, psychologically speaking.


  8. I recommend reading Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom. It’s kind of old since he wrote it in the 70′s but he takes a bunch of different cases and analyzes them through the lens of existential philosophy. In it he describes how all neuroses, pathologies, and generally all coping mechanisms and behavior can be attributed to and traced back to the four primal existential fears: death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness.


  9. I prefer old books to new to be honest so that doesn’t bother me. Culture of Narcissism, Denial of Death, Adler, Horney, Chinweizu, most of my favorite works are all old. I’ve heard a lot about Yalom, he’s mentioned in a lot of my favorite books. Back then psychology wanted to create a framework and expound on a worldview and express a personal philosophy. Now psychology books are mostly about glib pop science books summarizing studies followed by anecdotes to cash in on that Gladwell dinero$$$. I don’t mind those types of books but they don’t really rock your world like old psych books do.

    I just read a preview of Yalom based on your recommendation. He seems right up my alley. I’ll give it a shot.


  10. “Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.”

    Have you ever looked at Advaita, T? It’s one of the few philosophies that holds out no promise of meaning.


  11. I haven’t but I’ll check it out

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