Terror Management Theory

The Denial of Death was a book written by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in 1973. It introduced a theory that could be applied cross-culturally to explain the observation of violence in response to ideas of one’s own death. Concepts in this book were later developed and empirically tested by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon in the late 1980s. What they found was interesting. The implications of this research, which has now been replicated hundreds of times around the world to test for validity, are huge. Applying this theory to history can help to understand some of the large scale violence and oppression that has occurred around the world. A better understanding of these phenomenon can help to build a future that takes steps to avoid such occurrences.

Topics in this project will include: Violence during the Black Death, Violence during and after the American Civil War, abolition movements in the United States, and more.

What is Terror Management Theory?

Terror Management Theory is the idea that death brings a looming anxiety which, when presented, must be dealt with. Individuals manage to avoid thinking of death in many day to day instances but employ defense mechanisms when reminded. In response to the reminder of one’s own mortality, one responds in either a creative or destructive way. As biological beings who are aware of their own impending deaths, people attempt to escape death by redefining the problem. Immortality projects are formed in creative ways through literally surviving forever, which is to believe there is an immaterial soul that survives biological death. Individual death can also be avoided by creating Earthly things which will last long after one’s death such as, reproducing, creating a legacy, creating great art, and having done things that impact the course of history. Culture is another way to escape death. It allows people to become a small part of a greater self, one that has the potential to last forever. Culture establishes a structure which individuals can compare themselves with and contribute to. Societal norms dictate what it means to be a successful member, what goals to achieve, and a means for achieving those goals. Often individuals compete within cultures with things like money or influence, to establish a sense of personal and group worth.

What are Threats to Immortality?

“The first component of TMT states, individuals need to sustain faith in a meaningful worldview. The second states that individuals need to feel as if they are valuable protected members objects of significance within this worldview”[1] When these components are questioned or suspected to be wrong, a threat is presented. Other cultures, ideologies, and worldviews, similarly present a threat to immortality models. The idea that other groups hold different ideas about the nature of reality and meaning of life are threatening because they suggest the possibility for one’s own ideas to be wrong. If one’s ideas about immortality are wrong, then the individual’s immortality model becomes unsustainable. When faced with a substantial threat, a four step process emerges “The first is to dismiss a person or culture as an inferior form of life”[1] When the conflicting cultures are observed to be successfully upholding other immortality views, dismissal is often not enough to cope with the possibility the other group could be right. The second method is assimilation. When a culture cannot dismiss another, it tries to find common ground and merge the ideologies together to minimize differences. An example of this is mainstream America incorporating aspects of the counterculture movement such as blue jeans or natural granola bars, which were originally intended to rebel against society. “Mainstream America adopted appealing aspects of the counterculture and cut off the threatening aspects. In effect, designer blue jeans and highly processed granola bars became popular which twisted their original meaning.”[1] However assimilation usually fails in major areas of belief and differences cannot be resolved. The third method is accommodation. To compete with other views, it is empowering to have more subscribers that reinforce one’s own view. This is most evident in the of practice of missionaries. By gaining more followers or achieving higher levels of conformity, individuals become more convinced their own worldview is correct. The 4th and final method of dealing with a cultural threat, is annihilation. When all else fails the only other way to deal with the threat is to destroy it. This destruction can be through actual physical violence, destruction of ideas, or changes in ways of life.

  1. Jeff Greensburg, Sheldon Solomon, Flight from Death. Transcendental Media, 2005. Film.

Black Death

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