A new study suggests that thinking of death, or acknowledging human frailty, can help re-prioritize goals and values.
Researchers discovered that even non-conscious thinking about death — say walking by a cemetery — could prompt positive changes and promote helping others.
Many have felt that thinking about death is destructive and dangerous. Some have even speculated that the negative thoughts could lead to disruptive behaviors ranging from prejudice to greed and violence.
Many of these beliefs were associated with terror management theory (TMT), which posits that we uphold certain cultural beliefs to manage our feelings of mortality. But researchers now believe that the potential benefits of death awareness have not been explored.
“This tendency for TMT research to primarily deal with negative attitudes and harmful behaviors has become so deeply entrenched in our field that some have recently suggested that death awareness is simply a bleak force of social destruction,” said Kenneth Vail, doctoral student and lead author of the new study in the online edition of Personality and Social Psychology Review.
“There has been very little integrative understanding of how subtle, day-to-day, death awareness might be capable of motivating attitudes and behaviors that can minimize harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being.”
Vail and colleagues constructed a new model of how to think about our own mortality. In their research they performed an extensive review of recent studies on the topic.
During this examination they found numerous examples of experiments, both in the lab and field, that suggest a positive side to natural reminders about mortality.
For example, Vail points to a study by Matthew Gailliot and colleagues in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2008 that tested how just being physically near a cemetery affects how willing people are to help a stranger.
“Researchers hypothesized that if the cultural value of helping was made important to people, then the heightened awareness of death would motivate an increase in helping behaviors,” Vail said.
The researchers observed people who were either passing through a cemetery or were one block away, out of sight of the cemetery.
Actors at each location talked near the participants about either the value of helping others or a control topic, and then some moments later, another actor dropped her notebook. The researchers then tested in each condition how many people helped the stranger.
“When the value of helping was made salient, the number of participants who helped the second confederate with her notebook was 40 percent greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery,” Vail said.
“Other field experiments and tightly controlled laboratory experiments have replicated these and similar findings, showing that the awareness of death can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy and pacifism.”
For example, a 2010 study revealed how increased death awareness can motivate sustainable behaviors when pro-environmental norms are made salient.
Also, a 2009 study showed how an increased awareness of death can motivate American and Iranian religious fundamentalists to display peaceful compassion toward members of other groups when religious texts make such values more important.
Researchers also discovered that thinking about death can promote better health. Recent studies have shown that when reminded of death people may opt for better health choices, such as using more sunscreen, smoking less, or increasing levels of exercise.
A 2011 study by D.P. Cooper and co-authors found that death reminders increased intentions to perform breast self-exams when women were exposed to information that linked the behavior to self-empowerment.
One major implication of this body of work, Vail said, is that we should “turn attention and research efforts toward better understanding of how the motivations triggered by death awareness can actually improve people’s lives, rather than how it can cause malady and social strife.”
According to the authors: “The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life.”