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Terror management theory (TMT) is a theory within psychology that focuses on, according to the theory, the implicit emotional reactions of people that occur when confronted with the psychological terror of knowing we will eventually die. Empirical support for TMT has originated from more than 175 published experiments which have been conducted cross-culturally both nationally and internationally (Solomon, 2004).

The theory was first developed in the late 1980s by Skidmore College psychology professor Sheldon Solomon, University of Arizona psychology professor Jeff Greenberg, and Colorado University at Colorado Springs psychology professor Tom Pyszczynski, who were graduate students at the University of Kansas at the time. The trio were inspired by the theories of Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, 1973), Otto Rank and Freud, on how potent reminders of one's own ultimate death often provoke a belief in some form of mystical transcendence (heaven, reincarnation, spiritualism, etc.) Terror management theory attempts to provide a rationale for the motivational catalysts of human behavior when life is threatened.

The theory builds from the assumption that the capability of self-reflection and the consciousness of one’s own mortality can be regarded as a continuous source for existential anguish. This "irresolvable paradox" is created from the desire to preserve life and the realization of that impossibility (because life is finite).

Humans are aware of the inevitability of their own death. Culture diminishes this psychological terror by providing meaning, organization and continuity to people's lives. Compliance with cultural values enhances one's feeling of security and self-esteem, provided that the individual is capable of living in accordance with whatever particular cultural standards apply to him or her. The belief in the rightness of the cultural values and standards creates the conviction necessary to live a reasonable and meaningful life. This cultural worldview provides a base of making sense of the world as stable and orderly, a place where one rests their hopes on symbolic immortality (e.g., fame, having children, legacies of wealth or fortune) or literal immortality (e.g., the promise of a life in an afterworld).

One's cultural world view is a "symbolic protector" between the reality of life and inevitability of death. Because of this men and women strive to have their cultural worldview confirmed by others, thereby receiving the community’s esteem. However, when one’s worldview is threatened by the world view of another, it often results in one’s self-respect being endangered as well. In such a situation people not only endeavour to deny or devalue the importance of others' world views, but try to controvert the ideas and opinions of others which may, as a consequence, escalate into a conflict. As a result, mortality salience increases stereotypic thinking and intergroup bias between groups.

Two hypotheses have emerged from TMT research; the mortality salience hypothesis and the anxiety-buffer hypothesis. The mortality salience hypothesis says that if cultural worldviews and self-esteem provide protection from the fear of death, then reminding people of the root of that fear will increase the needs of individuals to value their own cultural worldview and self-esteem. The anxiety-buffer hypothesis provides the rationale that self-esteem is a buffer which serves to insulate humans from death. By doing so a person's self-esteem allows them to deny the susceptibility to a short-term life. Experiments supporting the two hypotheses above have been conducted in the US, Canada, Israel, Japan and the Netherlands. (Williams, Schimel and Gillespie, 2006).

Developing from the analysis of authoritative leadership by Erich Fromm (1941) in Escape from Freedom, people in a state of emotional distress by nature are prone to the allure of charismatic leaders. Research has shown that people, when reminded of their own inevitable death, will cling more strongly to their cultural worldviews. The data appears to show that nations or persons who have experienced traumas are more attracted to strong leaders who express traditional, pro-establishment, authoritarian viewpoints. They will also be hyper-aware of the possibility of external threats, and may be more hostile to those who threaten them. Additional research indicates those who are raised by authoritarian parents tend to conform to authority more frequently than those who are not. This perpetuates the belief that culture worldviews are a product of the socialization process and those who are socialized through authority are more susceptible to conformity when their mortality is made salient.

The theory gained media attention in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and after the re-election of President George W. Bush in the USA, Prime Minister Tony Blair in the UK, and John Howard in Australia.

Terror management researchers have shown that making mortality salient to research participants will lead to such changes in behaviors and beliefs that seemingly protect worldview and encourage self-esteem striving. This mortality-salient state is usually induced by having participants write down the emotions that come to mind when thinking about death, and expanded by having participants write about what they think will happen as they die and after they die. Following this procedure a brief delay is provided. Past research indicates mortality salience effects are more pronounced following a brief delay. Nevertheless, these researchers have not yet demonstrated that this happens for the reason they propose, namely to alleviate unconscious fears of death. Direct tests of this hypothesis are likely to soon emerge in the scholarly literature.


TMT & Emotion

Terror management theory is a master motivational theory, attempting to link human drives together under the rubric of the fear of death. According to Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski (1991), “All anxiety is derived from self-preservation instincts” (p. 102). TMT further argues that fear of death is the central force in evolution, motivating genetic self-preservation instincts in species and promoting natural selection (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, 1997). Emotion is both motivational (Lazarus, 1991) and evolutionary (Darwin, 1872). In spite of these obvious similarities, the amount of effort directed at examining affect and emotion in the process of terror management and elicited by mortality salience has been limited (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Kluck, & Cornwell, 2001). The following will examine the role that emotion plays in the terror management and the discrete emotions elicited by mortality salient primes.

Emotion in the Process of Terror Management

Obviously, terror management theory is interested in the effect of fear in producing cultural worldview defense. Fear is a basic emotion typically associated with an active fight-or-flight response to a specific set of categorically similar primes (Curtis & Biran, 2001). For terror management, distal defense is akin to the fight-type response; individuals heighten the liking of similar others and accentuate their dislike of dissimilar others. Proximal defense, on the other hand, typically results in the flight response; given the lack of self-efficacy associated with the insurmountability of death, one simply takes evasive action and drives death-related thoughts from their mind through distraction (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999).

The effects of fear on attitude change have been intensely debated. The orthodox view of fear appeals states that the level of fear is crucial to attitude outcomes. Research has shown that mortality salient fear associated with highly-hedonically relevant attitudes results in message rejection (Shehryar & Hunt, 2005). Individuals who highly enjoyed drinking rejected messages that linked drunk driving to death but accepted messages that tied drunk driving to arrest or social ostracism. TMT research therefore demonstrates that qualitative inquiry into the type of fear, not simply the gross amount of fear elicited, is crucial to the outcome of fear appeals on attitude change.

Experiential processing which relies on emotional memory is a crucial prerequisite to terror management processes. Rational processing, a logical, step-by-step system of cognitive evaluation, alternately impedes the cultural worldview defense mechanism intrinsic to terror management processes. Studies that varied experimenter formality/informality and explicit processing instructions demonstrate that worldview defense only occurs under conditions of emotional processing (Simon, Greenberg, Harmon-Jones, Solomon, Pyszczynski, Arndt, & Abend, 1997). Cognitive evaluations interfere with the symbolic, often arbitrary, associations between novel cultural defenses and fear of death (Pyszczynski, et al., 1999). Emotion, then, lies at the heart of all terror management.

Emotional elicitation has not been found to be a prerequisite for terror management processes. Many terror management studies have examined elicited affect as a covariate to mortality salience (see Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Kluck, & Cornwell, 2001), and only one reviewed study has found elicited affect (fear) in the terror management process (Harmon-Jones, Simon, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, & McGregor, 1997). Why? Terror management is a nonconscious process. The process occurs very quickly, imperceptibly, and automatically (Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989). As Rosenblatt and colleagues put it, terror management is designed to prevent any “conscious experience of emotion” (p. 689).

Emotion Elicitation and Terror Management

Of course, the unconscious process of terror management does produce conscious emotional responses. Many discrete emotional states are at least partially explained by terror management theory. Love, for instance, has been described as a need primarily for ordered interactions, lasting feelings of self-esteem and self-worth (which TMT associated directly with a prescribed role in a cultural drama), and vicarious immortality (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Solomon et al., 1991).

Love and Terror Management

Research corroborates the link between love and the fear of death. Studies reveal an association between close relationship seeking and mortality salience (for overview, see Mikulincer, Florian, & Hirschberger, 2003). Moreover, further studies demonstrate that the desire for close relationships under conditions of mortality salience trumps other needs including self-esteem and maintenance (pride) or avoidance (shame/guilt) other emotions (Hirschberger, Florian, & Mikulincer, 2003). Others argue that the perceived need to link <sex> with love is primarily due to existential anxiety, reflecting a need to reject the baser, animalistic need for sex (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000). These authors argue that relationship-seeking is a largely independent defense against existential angst, functioning without the assistance of either the self-esteem or worldview defense explanations (Mikulincer, et al., 2003).

Disgust and Terror Management

Disgust is another emotion linked to terror management. While many researchers bemoan the lack of analytic clarity linking discrete disgust elicitors (Royzman & Sabini, 2001), Goldenberg et al. (2000) find the rejection of animality or creatureliness to function as the central tendency driving disgust. Terror management’s distal processes ought to naturally attempt to distinguish humans from our basic, animal nature; these base processes that link humans and animals are the same processes that make death inexorable. Studies demonstrate that mortality salience is associated with the rejection of animal traits (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Kluck, & Cornwell, 2001). Even moral disgust, the most difficult type of disgust to categorically link with core disgust elicited, say, by feces, maintains the linkage to culturally relevant defenses against death-related anxiety.

Other Discrete Emotions and Terror Management

Other discrete emotions have been conceptually linked to terror management, but have yet to be studied directly. Jealousy, often linked to romantic love, ought to be heightened under conditions of mortality salience (Greenberg et al., 1986; Solomon et al., 1991). Shame, guilt, and humiliation are all associated with threats to self-esteem, a core terror management defense mechanism (Goldenberg et al., 2000; Greenberg et al., 1986; Solomon et al., 1991). Thus, mortality salience ought to paradoxically reduce the capacity for each by prompting independent self-esteem defense mechanisms. Anger and contempt have been neither directly examined nor hypothesized as outcomes of terror management theory, but both are likely accentuated by the outsider rejection mechanisms triggered by distal defense. Goldenberg et al. (2000) argue that pride, especially that related to body image, is explained by existential anxiety, but no studies yet conducted have examined pride as an outcome of mortality salience. Future research ought to examine these and other discrete emotions in the context of terror management theory.


Some evolutionary psychologists have diverged with the Terror Management Theory.[1] A research paper written by members of the UCLA Department of Psychology in cooperation with the UCLA Department of Anthropology stated:

"It would be quite astonishing were natural selection to produce a psychology in which, instead of orienting the organism to pressing adaptive challenges and motivating behavior that addressed them, anxiety regularly produced a paralytic state that could only be relieved through time-and attention-consuming mental gymnastics"[2]

These authors instead explain the so-called "death anxiety" as anxiety produced by natural selection because it spurs organisms to avoid situations likely to lead to death; the mortality salience effects are instead adaptive responses to specific threats.

Writing from an evolutionary psychology perspective, Kirkpatrick and Navarrete argue that the theoretical framework of TMT contains other problems when examined in light of evolutionary theory. For example, instead of creating a terror-management mechanism to manage a self-generated crippling emotion, they argue it is much more likely that natural selection would have simply selected for those organisms which did not display the crippling emotion in the first place.[3]

See also


  1. ^ Review of Evolutionary Psychology and Violence edited by Richard W. Bloom and Nancy Dess
  2. ^ Normative Bias and Adaptive Challenges
  3. ^ Kirkpatrick, Lee A. This view is not held by all social scientists. Some question how evolution could have solved this problem. Cultural evolution solved it by creating an afterlife/religion.; Navarrete, Carlos David (2006). "Reports of My Death Anxiety Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: A Critique of Terror Management Theory from an Evolutionary Perspective". Psychological Inquiry 17: 288-298. 

External links

  • Curtis, V.; Biran, A. (2001). "Dirt, disgust, and disease: Is hygiene in our genes?". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44 (1): 17–31. doi:10.1353/pbm.2001.0001. PMID 11253302. 
  • Darwin, C. (1872/1998). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. 3rd edition,. Harper Collins. 
  • Florian, V.; Mikulincer, M. (1997). "Fear of death and the judgment of social transgressions: a multidimensional test of terror" (Registration required). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73 (2): 369–80. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.73.2.369. ISSN 0022-3514. PMID 9248054. 
  • Goldenberg, J.L.; Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2000). "Fleeing the body: A terror management perspective on the problem of human corporeality". Personality & Social Psychology Review 4 (3): 200–218. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0403_1. 
  • Goldenberg, J.L.; Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Kluck, B., & Cornwell, R. (2001). "I am not an animal: Mortality salience, disgust, and the denial of human creatureliness". Journal of Experimental Psychology 130 (3): 427–435. PMID 11561918. 
  • Greenberg, J.; Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). R. F. Baumeister (Ed.). ed. Public self and private self. Springer-Verlag. pp. 189–212. 
  • Greenberg, J.; Pyszczynski, T.; Solomon, S.; Rosenblatt, A.; Veeder, M.; Kirkland, S. (1990). "Evidence for terror management theory. II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to" (Fee required). Journal of personality and social psychology 58 (2): 308–318. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.58.2.308. 13817, 35400000600727.0100 (INIST-CNRS). ISSN 0022-3514. Retrieved 2007-07-27. 
  • Greenberg, J.; Solomon, S.; Pyszczynski, T. (1997). "Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and". Advances in experimental social psychology 29 (S 61): 139. 
  • Hirschberger, G.; Florian, V., & Mikulincer, M. (2003). "Striving for romantic intimacy following partner complaint or partner criticism: A terror". Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 20 (5): 675–687. doi:10.1177/02654075030205006. 
  • Judis, J.B. (August 27, 2007). "Death grip: How political psychology explains Bush's ghastly success.". New Republic. 
  • Lazarus, R.S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195069943. 
  • Mikulincer, M.; Florian, V., & Hirschberger, G. (2003). "The existential function of close relationships. Introducing death into the science of love". Personality and Social Psychology Review 7 (1): 20–40. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0701_2. PMID 12584055. 
  • Pyszczynski, T.; Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (1997). "Why do we need what we need? A terror management perspective on the roots of human social motivation". Psychological Inquiry 8 (1): 1–20. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0801_1. 
  • Pyszczynski, T.; Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (1999). "A dual process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: An". Psychology Review 106 (4): 835–845. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.106.4.835. 
  • Rosenblatt, A.; Greenberg, J.; Solomon, S.; Pyszczynski, T.; Lyon, D. (1989). "Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to" (registration required). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (4): 681–90. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.4.681. ISSN 0022-3514. PMID 2795438. 
  • Royzman, E.B.; Sabini, J. (2001). "Something it takes to be an emotion: The interesting case of disgust". Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 31 (1): 29–59. doi:10.1111/1468-5914.00145. 
  • Shehryar, O.; Hunt, D.M. (2005). "A terror management perspective on the persuasiveness of fear appeals". Journal of Consumer Psychology 15 (4): 275–287. doi:10.1207/s15327663jcp1504_2. 
  • Simon, L.; Arndt, J., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1998). "Terror management and meaning: Evidence that the opportunity to defend the worldview in response". Journal of Personality 66 (3359-382): 359. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.00016. 
  • Simon, L.; Greenberg, J., Harmon-Jones, E., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., & Abend, T. (1997). "Terror management and cognitive-experiential self-theory: Evidence that terror management occurs". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72 (5): 1132–1146. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.72.5.1132. PMID 9150588. 
  • Solomon, S.; Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (1991). In M.P. Zanna (Ed.). ed. Advances in experimental social psychology. 24. Academic Press. pp. 93–159. 

Further resources

Applying the theory to 9/11

  • Pyszczynski, T.; Solomon, S.; Greenberg, J. (2003). "In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror". American Journal of Psychiatry 160 (5): 1019. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.5.1019. 
  • Greenberg, J.; Koole, S. L., & Pyszczynski, T. (2004). Handbook of experimental existential psychology. Guilford Press. ISBN 1593850409. 
  • Pyszczynski, T.; Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Maxfield, M., & Cohen, F. (2004). Fatal attraction. The effects of mortality salience on evaluations of charismatic, task-oriented,. 
  • Gutierrez, C. (2006). Consumer attraction to luxury brand products: Social affiliation in terror management theory. 

Discusses TMT at length

  • Griffin, R. (2007). Fascism & Modernism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1403987831. 


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