Social Psychology

Managing the Terror of Death

We go about life keeping the possibility of death in the back of our heads. We drive somewhere with the assumption that we will definitely make it to the destination. We don’t really think that this car ride could really be the last one. We don’t consider the possibility of losing our lives in a split of a second simply because we cannot bear the thought of leaving this world behind and going into the unknown.

Think about it. What are we? We emerged from being completely nothing to existing — being given a name, having self-consciousness, deep inner feelings and yearning for life and self-expression — for it to die. To get disposed. Whether we like it or not, we are ultimately helpless. We are abandoned in a world where our ultimate fate is death. Ceasing to exist.

But we can’t go about life keeping this in mind. At the root of our being, we have this need to deny the terror of death. We have this need to silence our basic anxiety of feeling — or rather, being — helpless. We have to keep it repressed somewhere in the back of our heads — in our unconscious — because it’s too overwhelming to bear. 

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Escaping the Terror

How do we escape the painful awareness of the terror of our death — our helplessness?

Undoubtedly, death anxiety influences our thinking and behavior. Terror management theory (TMT) research is precisely focused on the human fear of death. According to the theory, we tend to adopt a worldview that protects our self-esteem and self-worth; one that allows us to think we have an important role to play in a meaningful world. This is usually achieved through cultural values, such as religion and value of national identity.

One of the many ways we try to overcome the terror of death is through symbolic immortality, a universal drive to maintain a lasting sense of symbolic connectedness with many elements of life. The TMT theory proposes that people seek close relationships and identify with in-groups because they assume that they will live on symbolically through their legacy. After physically dying, some valuable aspects of themselves will continue to exist, either literally, such as in heaven, or symbolically, such as self-prolongation through their children or their eternal achievements.

In his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues that one thing that protects us from the awareness of our helplessness is society and the creation of a hero system. With this system, we believe that we transcend death by being part of something that is of lasting worth. We achieve immortality by sacrificing our souls to building a family, writing a book, accumulating wealth, as well as furthering and progressing prosperity.

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The Implications of Symbolic Immortality

Because the main motive of every human is to become heroic and transcend death, Becker believes that members must be provided by the culture with a symbolic system that is covertly religious. In a sense, there are holy wars between cultures — the ideological battles are between immortality projects. 

He asserts that making a killing — whether in battle or in business — is not about political or economic purposes. They have to do with our need to assure ourselves that we have achieved something of lasting worth. Human conflicts are life and death struggles. The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal nature nor territorial aggression, but our need to gain self-esteem. Our need to deny our mortality. We need to achieve that heroic self-image. 

Going about life with this defense mechanism comes at a high cost. Not only are we living in a façade, but also the fear of death may promote insecurity, bias, and even global conflict.

Our desire for the best is itself the cause of the worst. We want to make the world perfect, keep it safe and clean by eliminating evil. From the beginning of time, people have dealt with feelings of inferiority, self-hate, guilt, hostility by projecting it into an enemy. Battles are just for purifying of the world where the enemy is perceived to be dirty and dangerous. We sacrifice our men to destroy the cowardly enemies of righteousness. The bigger the losses, the greater the sacrifice for the sacred cause. 

Social Curiosity: The Key to Buffer Death Anxiety

Social curiosity is a prerequisite in interpersonal relationships because it helps build and maintain relationships through connections and the exchange of social information. As mentioned earlier, interpersonal relationships play a huge part in forming symbolic immortality. Thus, social curiosity can be considered as a representation of symbolic immortality.

Various studies have used the TMT framework to explore ways in which we can alleviate our death anxiety. A recent study done on Indonesian participants investigated the effect of social curiosity on death anxiety. Interestingly, findings suggest that social curiosity had characteristics that buffer death anxiety.

In fact, people continue to feel as part of a larger entity with the help of social curiosity – the driver of relationships with others. At the same time, social curiosity is useful to maintain extant connection as it helps to constantly update with other people’s conditions. Having a connection with social group will provide a collective social identity and provide symbolic immortality at the biosocial level. When people continue to develop social curiosity, people need not to worry too much about death because they will still be known even after death.

2 replies on “Managing the Terror of Death”

I love talking about death. In fact, ‘Mudge and I (‘Mole) do so exhaustively over here:

The conclusion we arrived at, regarding the Absurd Universe and the certainty of death—not just of ourselves but of the Universe itself—was that in order to not descend into Nihilism—at which point, if you truly become a Nihilist, you must kill yourself—that everyone needs a diversion.

Your mention of Social Curiosity fits in nicely. Anything to keep us from dwelling at that last fatal boundary of existential abandonment. Whatever one can dream up to keep our minds occupied fits the bill.

I do like that contrived excuse for existence regarding “the ideological battles being immortality projects.” I can see how billions of people might choose to delude themselves into thinking that a part of themselves would continue to exist after their death, in some collective consciousness of humanity. It’s a compelling story. But then again… Heat death of the Universe.


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