Thoughts of death can create anxiety. Terror management theory explains how we create meaning and react to our fear of mortality.

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We make dozens of decisions every day, some that require thought and some that we make without giving our decisions much thought.

The awareness of death can influence our choices and shape how we interact with others. It can also create a lot of anxiety and fear. Global crises and personal stressors or traumatic events can also bring to awareness our mortality.

The terror management theory is one explanation for what we do — consciously or subconsciously — with that awareness.

Death is an inevitable part of life, but how we cope with thoughts of death may be explained by the terror management theory. The terror management theory (TMT) states that people feel threatened by their own death and therefore adopt worldviews that allow them to find meaning and worth in their lives.

Terror management theory deals with consciousness and accessibility regarding thoughts of death. When our ideas about death are top of mind, we make more intentional choices to avoid death.

When death thoughts are readily accessible, and we feel threatened, this may cause us to become more close-minded and exhibit bias and stereotypes against others who don’t hold the same cultural worldviews.

First use

The concept of terror management theory was first used in 1986 and was developed by:

They based their work upon cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s 1973 book on death anxiety.

Applicable in present day?

Terror management theory is very prominent in our culture today. From mass shootings claiming scores of lives to the COVID-19 pandemic — which itself caused a massive death toll. Timely threats to mortality have caused many to change their actions and views on the world.

Research from 2021 about TMT in the present day has discussed the danger of living in a global pandemic and how it influenced the actions of many to help keep themselves safe and avoid death.

Researchers also suggest that there has been a tense relationship between individuals’ efforts to keep themselves safe and the desire for things to return to the previous way of living.

There are various types of terror management theories across multiple disciplines.

What is terror management in social psychology?

In social psychology, terror management theory suggests that humans are more aware of their inevitable death than animals. Psychologists Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski proposed in their 1986 research mentioned above that the awareness of death shapes three different factors:

  1. cultural worldviews
  2. self-esteem
  3. close interpersonal relationships

These factors become an anxiety-buffering system to help humans manage the fear of death. The researchers expanded upon their theory in their 2015 book “The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.

What is terror management in sociology?

In sociology, there are themes of terror management theory that affect societal behavior. For example, awareness of death may cause societies or groups to make poor decisions. In addition, some values belonging to a group of people may be harmful to society at a more significant level.

For example, after 9/11, thoughts of death were more prominent, and many felt threatened. The threat to the United States may have caused many people to develop stereotypes about Muslims and created anti-Muslim attitudes based on the actions of a few people.

This is reinforced by older 2005 research that examined both direct and chain reactions of students at a Midwest university after 9/11.

Study authors also found that the reactions of the participants when confronted with death anxiety were:

  • shock
  • disbelief
  • altruistic behavior
  • prosocial behavior
  • seeking meaning or value in life
  • looking for and sharing information
  • talking with others
  • making bigoted remarks about Arab Muslims

On the flip side, living in spite of the inevitability of death may allow individuals to create meaningful relationships with others and ascribe to cultural worldviews that help them find meaning, untethered by an impending sense of doom.

What is terror management in anthropology?

In anthropology, terror management theory stems from Ernest Becker’s book “The Denial of Death.”

Becker’s 1973 publication proposed that being aware of your mortality can create fear, and because of that fear, humans have a tendency to avoid death at all costs.

He also focused on human’s ability to be aware that death is inevitable and will occur at an unknown future time, and suggested that the unknown creates anxiety.

There are several examples of how terror management theory takes place.

Terror management health model

One prominent model of how terror management affects us is the terror management health model (TMHM).

Basic concepts of the TMHM:

  • health conditions make you aware of and have thoughts about death
  • you have conscious and unconscious beliefs about mortality
  • direct or indirect concerns can influence health decisions
  • when health decisions are conscious, you may try to reduce your vulnerability to death
  • when health decisions are unconscious, you may be guided by self-serving interests at the expense of health

Two additional research studies on the TMHM found that when individuals were primed with thoughts of mortality, their health-enhancing behaviors increased, but when individuals were distracted from thoughts of death, they were not likely to make any changes from what they were doing before. In turn, they often engaged in self-serving behavior.

Terror management and religion

When you’re faced with your own mortality, anxiety can increase.

One research article that explores TMT through a religious perspective suggests that people try to find meaning through religion because it promises an afterlife. As a result, people may adopt worldviews that seek to make their life meaningful.

Global crises such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks can make people seek ways to be remembered after their death and find like-minded people to identify with due to the awareness of their mortality on a broad scale.

Terror management theory can create a lot of prejudice and hostility. Because people try to make sense of their concerns about mortality, anything that may threaten your worldview or that is different than your own may feel threatening.

One research study that examined individuals’ reactions on Twitter after a terrorist attack in Berlin identified that some core reactions that occur after such violence include:

  • stereotyping
  • prejudice
  • disdain for cultural values different than one’s own

In other words, being aware of the inevitability of death can increase positive feelings toward those who share your cultural, religious, or political beliefs and increase negative feelings toward those that don’t share the same beliefs as you.

This suggests that one of the important ramifications of TMT is that it places a divide between people who don’t share similar beliefs. If others don’t have the same worldview as you, this can create a need to defend yourself against others.

According to the creators of terror management theory, it has four basic propositions:

  1. the anxiety-buffer hypothesis
  2. the morality-salience hypothesis
  3. the death-thought accessibility hypothesis
  4. a combination of the three hypotheses together

The anxiety-buffer hypothesis states that self-esteem eases anxiety related to the perceived threat of death. Multiple research studies have confirmed this hypothesis and found that both manipulated and high levels of self-esteem reduced fear related to thoughts about death.

The mortality-salience hypothesis proposes the idea that when people have reminders of death, they increase protection in regards to:

  • worldviews
  • self-esteem
  • close personal attachments with others

Anything that then threatens these three protection mechanisms elicits a negative response, and anything that bolsters these mechanisms helps reduce anxiety and elicits a positive response.

The death-thought accessibility (DTA) hypothesis proposes that any situation that threatens an individual’s anxiety buffer system increases death-related thoughts.

Threats then make individuals defensive about their worldviews and expand striving for self-esteem and close interpersonal relationships.

The terror management theory (TMT) is a theory that explains how individuals deal with thoughts of their own death. Death is inevitable and can lead you to avoid thoughts of your death or take action to create meaning in your life.

When a person fears death, they try and reduce their anxiety by:

There are many examples of terror management theory and how it applies to your life. For instance, it can influence how you react after a global crisis or natural disaster. It can also affect how you make personal health decisions, such as the choice to exercise or use alcohol.

While the terror management theory can have adverse effects, such as creating stereotypes or biases toward others, it can also increase unity with others who share similar beliefs or want to come together to help out a cause.