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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2015

Our Awareness of Death's Door With Tom Pyszczynski, PhD

Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer

What if we as a people were not aware that we are mortal and will all eventually die? According to Dr. Tom Pyszczynski, “We wouldn’t be people. We wouldn’t have the intelligence and cognitive skills that make us human. Our knowledge that we will all die leads to a lot of other things that make us human such as our tendency to seek solace in belief systems, values, and heroism. As far as we know, these are things that do not exist in other species. They depend on an abstract understanding of being alive and knowing that we will someday die.”
Dr. Pyszczynski is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In the mid-1980s, along with Drs. Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg, he developed Terror Management Theory (TMT), an analysis of the role that awareness of death plays in life. The chief inspirational source for their work is cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death. This book indicates that, even though people don’t think about it often, knowing that death is the ultimate fate affects most of what we do in life. Today, Dr. Pyszczynski speaks with us about TMT from inside his office where he has a clear view of Pikes Peak covered in snow in the distance.
Tiny people wander around outside, looking very cold as Dr. Pyszczynski’s description of TMT takes us thousands of years back in time: “The basic idea of TMT is that our self-esteem and our understanding of the world around us are part of a system that protects us from the frightening thought that we are going to someday die. The basic idea is that way back in the beginning of human history, as our ancestors evolved the capacity to become self-aware, use language, and think about time and other complex topics, they also became aware that they were going to die. This was around the same time that they were coming up with explanations for how the world works and ways of understanding reality, so the terror that resulted from knowing that they were going to die influenced the kinds of ideas that people invented.”
“For example, one of the more obvious things that people came up with are ways of getting around the problem of death, both literally and symbolically. Cultures provide literal immortality through the beliefs in different forms of the afterlife such as heaven, reincarnation, joining with spirits, and spiritual beliefs in general. The way those beliefs are structured is that you have to be a good person to qualify for an afterlife, or heaven, or reincarnation. And ‘to be a good person’ involves living up to the values that your culture lays out for you in your cultural world view. Thus, people protect themselves from their fear of death by believing in a cultural world view that explains how the world works, what our purpose is, and how we should behave. Then, trying to live up to the standards of that world view gives us our self-esteem. Our belief systems, our world view, and our self-esteem are a part of an anxiety buffering system that protects us from the fear of death.” However, if human beliefs and actions are all related to concealing our fear of dying, the following question must be asked:
Why Are People So Fascinated By Death?
As Dr. Pyszczynski explains, “We are fascinated by things that frighten us because, in most cases, this requires us to understand our fears. We want to be able to understand death, but not just any understanding will do. We do not want to think of death as the end of existence. We don’t want to think of death as a time when all of our consciousness goes away forever or that our bodies decay whether we are buried or cremated. We don’t want to think that, within a few years, even the people who loved us will have gotten over our death. In 10 or 20 years, very few people will even remember that we existed.”
“That’s all terrifying to think about, so we try to maintain a sense of ourselves as living in a world in which we continue on after death, either literally in an afterlife or symbolically by having made a positive influence on something greater than ourselves that will continue to exist. For that reason, when people write books, write music, or build monuments, one important motive behind their actions is to leave something behind that will outlast their physical life.”
September 11, 2001
One idea that TMT suggests is that, if a person feels that they are a good person who understands the world as it really is, they are safe and terrible things won’t happen to them. Unfortunately, sometimes a world view and self-esteem are noticeably threatened, as can be seen though the example of 9-11.
“9-11 was a dramatic reminder of death and vulnerability—a situation where 19 guys with box cutters managed to kill around 3,000 people and bring our nation to a halt. They pretty much shut everything down, and when that happened, we were constantly struck with the carnage that was involved. We saw footage repeated on every television network of people jumping from the twin towers, running from the rubble, and talking about the family members and loved ones who they had lost. Death was in the air, and at the same time, this attack was executed by people who were intent on challenging our cultural values. They were basically doing this because, in their view, we are an evil people. They were saying, ‘We are committing this act in the name of God to punish America.’ Although we don’t agree with them, the idea that anyone would think that we’re an evil people who deserve punishment is a challenge to our sense that we are really a good and valued group of people.”
“Additionally, this attack was aimed at major symbols of America: the World Trade Center, a symbol of our economic power; the Pentagon, a symbol of our military power; the White House, a central seat of government; New York City and Washington DC, maybe our two most powerful cities. Thus, on the one hand, we were reminded of death. On the other, the attack challenged our world view, our sense of our value, and our sense of our invulnerability. This led to our panicked, terrified, and extreme reactions at shoring up our faith in our world view, our confidence, and our value both as individuals and as a nation. To do this, people became enormously patriotic.”
Dr. Pyszczynski pauses to paint us a picture of American flags on every front porch and yellow flags on most cars. He specifically remembers Bob Dylan singing a patriotic song at a World Series game, which was something he never would have expected to see. “There was such a surge of patriotism and solidarity among Americans, and a simultaneous sense that we now needed to root out the evil in the world that brought this attack upon us. Even though the terrorists didn’t come from Iran or Iraq, these countries were labeled the Axis of Evil, and there was a great deal of readiness to go out and reaffirm our righteousness by punishing these people. Many Americans even explicitly said, ‘It doesn’t matter if those countries were involved or not. Somebody’s got to die.’ This was a way of restoring our sense of strength and superiority.”
Researching TMT
After the attacks, Dr. Pyszczynski and other researchers conducted many experiments where they reminded people of 9-11 or of the fact that they themselves would someday die; these reminders created basically the same reactions. “One of the first really dramatic things that we found was that these reminders led to increased support of President Bush, even among liberals who tended to not like him to begin with. That faded in a few years after the war in Iraq started and questions were raised by the media about how that war was being pursued. However, the initial reaction was to support the leader.”
“The reminders also led to increased willingness to support things like the Patriot Act, military actions of various kinds to go out and get those responsible, and the use of extreme military tactics—even nuclear weapons. Thinking about 9-11 or death increased support for using nuclear and chemical weapons, and increased people’s willingness to accept tens of thousands of civilian casualties.”
Around the same time, psychologists in Israel similarly found that thinking about death led Israelis to become more supportive of military tactics in the conflict with Palestinians. After this, Dr. Pyszczynski began to collaborate with an Iranian psychologist, Abdolhossein Abdollahi, to learn more. “We did some studies showing that thinking about death also led Iranians to be more supportive of suicide bombings to kill Americans. In other words, awareness of mortality increases support for violence among Americans, Israelis, and Iranians, who are all very different sorts of people coming from very different cultures. The same thing that makes them want to kill us makes us want to kill them. That’s because people who are different and challenge our beliefs also threaten our security and our protection from the fear of death. When we are more aware of death, we need that sense of protection more, so we are more likely to lash out at people who are different or who threaten us in various ways.”
Using TMT to Better Society
“What we had found so far about violence was interesting, but not very encouraging. After all, we were finding ways to make people from the West and people from the Middle East want to kill each other more! That was the opposite of what we wanted, so we thought about what might turn that around.” According to TMT, to obtain a sense of security, people strive for self-esteem, which basically means that they try to be a good person by living up to the values that are central to their world view. For this reason, Dr. Pyszczynski and others decided to look at the values that people hold dear.
“One of the interesting paradoxes is that the world has been involved in so many horrifically violent conflicts throughout history. There have been religious wars ever since there were people. And that’s ironic because all religious teachings contain values that emphasize ‘caring for others,’ ‘not causing them harm,’ ‘doing unto others as we would like them to do unto us,’ and so forth. In a sense, these religious teachings about caring were our possible antidote to the tendency to be hostile to people who are different, so we began to study how they affect support for war and violence in the United States, Iran, and Israel. In one of the first studies, we looked at Americans who are either high or low in religious fundamentalism. What we found, which we have found many times before, was that American religious fundamentalists are generally more supportive of war than people who are not fundamentalists in their religious orientations. When reminded of death, religious fundamentalists become even more supportive of war.”
“However, if we asked the fundamentalists to read some quotes from their sacred book—in this case, quotes from the Bible about compassion such as ‘love your enemy,’ ‘turn the other check,’ ‘judge not lest ye be judged’—the reminder of death actually decreased their support for war and violence. We thought that was a really interesting study, so we tried it again in Iran and found exactly the same thing. If you remind Iranians of death under neutral conditions, they become more hostile toward the West and more supportive of aggressive policies. But if you first have them read some quotes from the Koran about compassion and caring, then thinking about death makes them less hostile toward the West and less supportive of aggressive policies toward us.” In summary, studying TMT can make us aware that we are hypersensitive toward people who are different when we feel threatened. However, if our values favor compassion, we will be more likely to respond to our insecurities by becoming more compassionate and less supportive of war.
Additional Applications of TMT
“We’re doing some interesting work now on environmental attitudes, and we are especially interested in climate denial, or why people seem so committed to believing that scientists are wrong about climate issues. We conducted research in France last year where we found that, if you show photos of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster to people who are skeptical of environmental issues, they will think we need more nuclear power plants. Try to wrap your head around that for a minute—that thinking about a nuclear disaster makes people believe that nuclear power is a better energy source.”
Attempting to understand human irrationality and finding ways to get around it to solve some of the problems that people face has become a focal point for Dr. Pyszczynski and others. As he elaborates, “Of course, not being phased by a nuclear disaster is one thing, but hearing how nuclear power can produce catastrophic consequences and then wanting more of it suggests that something very irrational is going on. No doubt, this centers around individuals’ desire to maintain their ideology and their political world view. We also see this in the United States. For example, after the Sandy Hook shooting, a lot of people thought that we really need more guns. In that case, I guess people might think that wanting more guns is a rational argument because the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. However, in regard to the study showing how people react to the Fukushima meltdown by thinking that we need more nuclear power—there is no rational explanation for that.”
Encouraging Psychology Students
Dr. Pyszczynski’s mentor is Dr. Jack Brehm, who also taught Drs. Jeff Greenberg and Sheldon Solomon at the University of Kansas in the late 1970s. “Jack changed our lives and opened our minds to psychology. He was a student of Dr. Leon Festinger who created cognitive dissonance theory. Jack’s psychological research focused largely on how people react when their freedom was threatened. He was a really big believer in providing opportunities for people to develop their own ideas and never gave us orders or told us what to do. He taught us to think about what was important and interesting to us, and he tried to help us learn to think about those things while providing as little direction as possible. I mean that in a really positive way! His idea was that, by giving people freedom to think on their own, you will develop someone who can to come up with creative ideas in the future. That’s what education is really about. It’s not about learning facts and figures. It’s about learning to think critically and creatively.”
For this reason, Dr. Pyszczynski encourages psychology students to find and pursue whatever topic that interests them most. After all, his dedication to the study of death’s door might seem like a dreary choice at first. However, in many ways, his TMT research serves as a daily reminder to always live the life that you have to its fullest. As he concludes, “Take the chance to dive in. The more you put in, the more you will get in return. Really realize that this is your life and your future. I just turned 60, and I’m enjoying my research more than ever before. I believe students should try to find something they really love that will give them a fun life.”

Tom Pyszczynski received a PhD in psychology from the University of Kansas in the 1980s. He is currently Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. With Drs. Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg, he developed Terror Management Theory, an analysis of the role that awareness of death plays in life and has been refining it and testing hypotheses derived from it for almost 30 years since then. A new book by Drs. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, The Worm at the Core: The Role of Death in Life (Random House) provides a broad overview of this work written in an accessible way that anyone can read to open them up to new ideas. He and his colleagues also coedited the Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology.

Copyright 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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