Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

Living Edition
| Editors: Danan Gu, Matthew E. Dupre

Terror Management Theory and Its Implications for Older Adults

  • Jeff GreenbergEmail author
  • Peter J. Helm
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_115-1


As adults get older, they are more frequently reminded of their eventual death. Terror Management Theory addresses how people cope with the knowledge of their own mortality and how they react to reminders of it. The theory posits that people cope with awareness of their mortality by sustaining faith in a symbolic conception of reality and one’s personal significance.


Terror management theory (TMT) was originally formulated by three social psychologists in the mid-1980s based on the writings of Ernest Becker (Greenberg et al. 1986; Solomon et al. 2015). Becker (1971, 1973) synthesized an existential psychodynamic perspective that had developed out of the early psychoanalytic theorizing of Otto Rank and others. The theory posits that although, like other animals, humans are biologically predisposed to continual living, unlike other animals, they are aware that their death is inevitable and could come at any time for a host of reasons. Because it runs counter to core desires, this awareness brings with it an ever present potential to experience existential anxiety or terror.

This potential for anxiety is managed by living in denial of one’s own mortality. This is accomplished primarily by viewing one’s existence through a symbolic conception of reality provided by one’s culture. Humans don’t experience reality as it is but rather through symbols of their culture: flags, sacred sites, personal and group names, days, months, accounts of creation and history, explanations of what death is and what happens afterward, and so forth. These cultural worldviews imbue life with order, meaning, values, and paths to feeling that one will continue in some form beyond one’s physical death. These internalized worldviews provide a sense that one will be protected in life and able to transcend one’s death as long as the person lives up to the values of worth prescribed by that worldview, which provides self-esteem. In this way, these worldviews help us manage our terror of death. The possibility of literal immortality is offered by an immortal soul and concepts of a benevolent afterlife. The possibility of symbolic immortality is provided by identification with offspring, cultural groups, nature, and culturally valued accomplishments (Lifton 1979).

TMT thus posits that people will be able to function with their anxieties minimized to the extent they can sustain faith in their cultural worldview and in the belief that they are worthy contributors to that reality (their self-esteem). Some researchers have argued that close relationships play a special role in keeping anxiety at bay because, in addition to their roles in validating our worldviews and self-esteem, close others provide the warm feelings of security we first derived as children from our relationships with our parents (Mikulincer et al. 2003). Since its development, over 700 studies have supported hypotheses derived from TMT (for a list of published empirical articles, see tmt.missouri.edu).

Key Research Findings

Three broad ideas have guided most of this research. The first is that bolstering faith in the individual’s worldview or self-esteem will reduce anxiety and death-related defensiveness, and that threatening those constructs will increase anxiety and defensiveness. A variety of studies have supported hypotheses derived from this idea. For example, bolstering people’s self-esteem reduces self-reported and physiological indicators of anxiety and defensive reactions to thoughts of death (Greenberg et al. 1992; Harmon-Jones et al. 1997).

The second idea is that reminding people of their mortality (increasing mortality salience) will increase the desire to defend and bolster one’s worldview and self-worth. Hundreds of studies have supported hypotheses derived from this idea (for a review, see Greenberg et al. 2014). For example, after mortality has been made salient, people generally become more negative toward individuals or groups perceived to be challenging their worldview, but more supportive of those perceived to be validating their worldview. Mortality salience also motivates people to strive harder in domains of achievement relevant to their self-esteem. Arndt and colleagues (e.g., Arndt et al. 2013) have shown that reminders of mortality can lead people to engage in risky, unhealthy behavior when individuals base their self-esteem partly on such behaviors.

The third idea is that threatening psychological constructs that serve terror management will make death-related thoughts more accessible to consciousness (Hayes et al. 2010). Over a hundred studies have supported hypotheses derived from this idea. Two primary methods have been developed to assess how accessible death-related thoughts are. The first is a word completion task in which some word stems could be completed in either a death or non-death related fashion. For example, coff _ _ could be completed as coffin or coffee. More death-related completions reflect higher accessibility of death-related thought (Greenberg et al. 1994). The second method is to use a lexical decision task in which individuals must decide if a series of word strings that appear on a computer screen are words or not. Letter strings constituting non-words, death-related words, and non-death-related words are flashed on the screen and how quickly participants identify the death-related words as words, relative to the non-death-related words, is measured (e.g., Hayes et al. 2008).

Using these measures, researchers have found that threatening people’s worldviews, their self-esteem, or their close relationships all increase the accessibility of death-related thought. So does reminding people of their physical nature because, as Becker (1973) noted, the body is a continual reminder that we are material, mortal creatures (Goldenberg 2012).

TMT has also provided insights into ageism and aspects of aging. As evolutionary philosopher Susanne K. Langer (1982) has noted, it is the death of people whose systems have failed because of old age that first provided our ancestors the proof that death is inevitable. So, older adults remind the rest of us of death and its inevitability. In support of this idea, Martens et al. (2004) and O’Connor and McFadden (2012) have found that images of older people increase death thought accessibility in young adults. In addition, Martens et al. (2004) found that when mortality is made salient, young adults distance from and have more negative attitudes towards older adults (also see Boudjemadi and Gana 2012). Building on this TMT analysis of ageism, Popham et al. (2011) found that young adults use risk-taking behaviors that make them feel invulnerable to distance from older adults. In addition, studies have found that higher death anxiety is associated with dread of looking old and negative attitudes toward old people (Chonody and Teater 2016; Depaola et al. 2003). Taken together, this work shows that mortality concerns contribute to ageism.

Although the bulk of TMT studies have used young and middle-aged adult samples, recent research has also examined how older people respond to mortality salience. In contrast to the evidence found with younger adults, these studies have generally found that reminders of death lead older adult to be less harsh in their judgment of others and more open-minded (Maxfield et al. 2007, 2017). Research has also shown that mortality salience does not motivate older adults to bias their self-reports of engaging in healthy behaviors, even though it does so for young adults (Bozo et al. 2009). In addition, in older adults, mortality salience increases their focus on being generative, on contributing to the well-being of future generations (Major et al. 2016; Weiss 2014). These more constructive responses may occur because, as research utilizing self-reported death anxiety measures suggests, older adults come to be more accepting and less afraid of death (e.g., Cicirelli 2003; Chopik 2017; Depaola et al. 2003; Henrie and Patrick 2014). However, one set of studies has shown that older adults’ decisions about using their savings for annuities are influenced by the desire to avoid reminders of their own mortality (Salisbury and Nenkov 2016). And research has found that constructive rather than defensive responses to mortality salience are true primarily for well-functioning older adults (Maxfield et al. 2012). Older adults who are struggling with their physical or mental health seem to respond to mortality salience like younger adults, with more rigidity and judgmental responses.

TMT and the body of research supporting it have many implications, but two have been asserted the most. First, this work shows that faith in a meaning-providing worldview, a stable sense of self-worth, and secure close relationships are all critical psychological resources for optimizing physical and mental health and minimizing anxiety and anxiety-related problems, depression, and substance abuse (see e.g., Goldenberg and Arndt 2008; Solomon et al. 2015). TMT thus suggests that mental health problems will best be addressed by helping clients develop and maintain worldviews that provide a meaningful view of life and attainable bases of self-esteem, and by helping them developing means of garnering durable self-esteem based on that worldview.

Second, because reminders of mortality increase our reliance upon and defense of our worldviews, self-esteem, and close relationships, they may increase nationalism, prejudice, stereotyping, conformity, greed, distancing from one’s own body and other species of animals, and the appeal of religion and charismatic leaders, but they can also motivate prosocial behavior, creativity, achievement, nostalgia, valuing of relationship partners, and striving for justice (see e.g., Greenberg et al. 2014; Solomon et al. 2015). Cultures should promote worldviews and bases of self-worth that promote the more constructive potential responses when individuals have to cope with particularly potent reminders of mortality. Furthermore, people should be cognizant of efforts by political figures and marketers to manipulate by utilizing such reminders.

Future Directions for Research

Many questions regarding how people manage their potential existential anxiety remain. First, although brief reminders of mortality tend to promote rigid reliance on one’s worldviews and bases of self-worth, some researchers have begun to examine the possibility that more sustained and mindful contemplation of mortality might actually encourage people to be more appreciate of their lives, more open-minded and tolerant, and more compassionate toward self and others (e.g., Cozzolino et al. 2004; Vail et al. 2012). If and how that works remains in question.

Second, research has shown that terror management defenses mainly serve to keep unconscious death-related concerns from flooding consciousness. A very different set of coping processes occur when death concerns are in focal attention. Further research is needed to understand how these latter defenses relate to and interact with terror management defenses. Furthermore, cultural worldviews are complex and multifaceted abstractions, and each individual within a framework is exposed to a possible wide range of information and experiences. Additional theories and research are necessary to make precise predictions concerning which aspects of their worldview and which bases of self-worth a given individual will rely on in response to reminders of death.

More research is also needed to better understand why high functioning older adults seem to respond in more constructive ways to reminders of mortality. Such understanding may provide ways to promote such constructive responses for younger adults. In addition, for older adults and other people who are facing the likelihood of death in the foreseeable future, there are questions regarding the best paths toward experiencing the kind of identification with the continuity of life (Lifton 1979; Menaker 1982) that would maximize their sense of meaning and significance and thus optimize the last years or months of their lives.


Terror Management Theory provides a broad understanding of how people’s knowledge of their own mortality drives them toward sustaining faith in their worldview and striving toward personal significance. These efforts are intensified by reminders of mortality; consequently, such reminders affect a wide range of judgments, decisions, and behaviors. Indeed, a large body of research has explored these many ways in which awareness of mortality influences both young and older adults. Further research may ultimately help us reshape our cultures toward improving our lives and our treatment of each other and may also promote better end-of-life care and experiences.



  1. Arndt J, Vail KE, Cox C et al (2013) Dying for a smoke: the interactive effect of mortality reminders and tobacco craving on smoking topography. Health Psychol 32:525–532.  https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Becker E (1971) The birth and death of meaning, 2nd edn. The Free Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Becker E (1973) The denial of death. The Free Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Boudjemadi V, Gana K (2012) Effect of mortality salience on implicit ageism: implication of age stereotypes and sex. Eur Rev Appl Psychol 62:9–17.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erap.2011.11.002CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bozo Ö, Tunca A, Šimšek Y (2009) The effect of death anxiety and age on health-promoting behaviors: a terror-management theory perspective. J Psychol 143:377–389.  https://doi.org/10.3200/JRLP.143.4.377-389CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chonody JM, Teater B (2016) Why do I dread looking old?: a test of social identity theory, terror management theory, and the double standard of aging. J Women Aging 28:112–126.  https://doi.org/10.1080/08952841.2014.950533CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chopik WJ (2017) Death across the lifespan: age differences in death-related thoughts and anxiety. Death Stud 41:69–77.  https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2016.1206997CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cicirelli VG (2003) Older adults’ fear and acceptance of death: a transition model. Ageing Int 28:66–81.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s12126-003-1016-6CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cozzolino PJ, Staples AD, Meyers LS et al (2004) Greed, death, and values: from terror management to transcendence management theory. Personal Soc Psychol Bull 30:278–292.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167203260716CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Depaola SJ, Griffin M, Young JR et al (2003) Death anxiety and attitudes toward the elderly among older adults: the role of gender and ethnicity. Death Stud 27:335–354.  https://doi.org/10.1080/07481180302904CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Goldenberg J (2012) A body of terror: denial of death and the creaturely body. In: Shaver PR, Mikulincer M (eds) Meaning, mortality, and choice: the social psychology of existential concerns. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp 93–110.  https://doi.org/10.1037/13748-005CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Goldenberg JL, Arndt J (2008) The implications of death for health: a terror management health model for behavioral health promotion. Psychol Rev 115:1032–1053.  https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013326CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Greenberg J, Pyszczynski T, Solomon S (1986) The causes and consequences if the need for self-esteem: a terror management theory. In: Baumeister RF (ed) Public and private self. Springer, New York, pp 189–212.  https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4613-9564-5_10CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Greenberg J, Solomon S, Pyszczynski T et al (1992) Assessing the terror management analysis of self-esteem: converging evidence of an anxiety-buffering function. J Pers Soc Psychol 63:913–922.  https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.63.6.913CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Greenberg J, Pyszczynski T, Solomon S et al (1994) Role of consciousness and accessibility of death-related thoughts in mortality salience effects. J Pers Soc Psychol 67:627–637.  https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.67.4.627CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Greenberg J, Vail K, Pyszczynski T (2014) Chapter three – Terror management theory and research: how the desire for death transcendence drives our strivings for meaning and significance. In: Elliot AJ (ed) Advances in motivation science. Elsevier, Oxford, pp 85–134.  https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.adms.2014.08.003CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Harmon-Jones E, Simon L, Greenberg J et al (1997) Terror management theory and self-esteem: evidence that self-esteem attenuates mortality salience effects. J Pers Soc Psychol 72:24–36.  https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.72.1.24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hayes J, Schimel J, Faucher EH et al (2008) Evidence for the DTA hypothesis II: threatening self-esteem increases death-thought accessibility. J Exp Soc Psychol 44:600–613.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2008.01.004CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hayes J, Schimel J, Arndt J et al (2010) A theoretical and empirical review of the death-thought accessibility concept in terror management research. Psychol Bull 136:699–739.  https://doi.org/10.1037/a0020524CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Henrie J, Patrick JH (2014) Religiousness, religious doubt, and death anxiety. Int J Aging Hum Dev 78:203–227.  https://doi.org/10.2190/AG.78.3.aCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Langer S (1982) Mind: an essay in human feeling, vol III. Johns Hopkins University Press, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  22. Lifton RJ (1979) The broken connection: on death and continuity of life. Simon & Schuster, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  23. Major RJ, Whelton WJ, Schimel J et al (2016) Older adults and the fear of death: the protective function of generativity. Can J Aging 35:261–272.  https://doi.org/10.1017/S0714980816000143CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Martens A, Greenberg J, Schimel J et al (2004) Ageism and death: effects of mortality salience and perceived similarity to elders on reactions to elderly people. Personal Soc Psychol Bull 30:1524–1536.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167204271185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Maxfield M, Pyszczynski T, Kluck B et al (2007) Age-related differences in responses to thoughts of one’s own death: mortality salience and judgements of moral transgressions. Psychol Aging 22:341–353.  https://doi.org/10.1037/0882-7974.22.2.341CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Maxfield M, Pyszczynski T, Greenberg J et al (2012) The moderating role of executive functioning in older adults’ responses to a reminder of mortality. Psychol Aging 27:256–263.  https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023902CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Maxfield M, Pyszczynski T, Greenberg J et al (2017) Age differences in the effects of mortality salience on the correspondence bias. Int J Aging Hum Dev 84:329–342.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0091415016685332CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Menaker E (1982) Otto Rank: a rediscovered legacy. Columbia University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  29. Mikulincer M, Florian V, Hirschberger G (2003) The existential function of close relationships: introducing death into the science of love. Personal Soc Psychol Rev 7:20–40.  https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327957PSPR0701_2CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. O’Connor ML, McFadden SH (2012) A terror management perspective on young adults’ ageism and attitudes toward dementia. Educ Gerontol 38:627–643.  https://doi.org/10.1080/03601277.2011.595335CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Popham LE, Kennison SM, Bradley KI (2011) Ageism and risk-taking in young adults: evidence for a link between death anxiety and ageism. Death Stud 35:751–763.  https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2011.573176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Salisbury LC, Nenkov GY (2016) Solving the annuity puzzle: the role of mortality salience in retirement savings decumulation decisions. J Consum Psychol 26:417–425.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2015.10.001CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Solomon S, Greenberg J, Pyszczynski T (2015) The worm at the core: on the role of death in life. Random House, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  34. Vail KE, Juhl J, Arndt J et al (2012) When death is good for life: considering the positive trajectories of terror management. Personal Soc Psychol Rev 16:303–329.  https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868312440046CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Weiss D (2014) What will remain when we are gone? Finitude and generation identity in the second half of life. Psychol Aging 29:554–562.  https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036728CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyThe University of ArizonaTucsonUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Susanne Wurm
    • 1
  • Anna E. Kornadt
    • 2
  1. 1.Institute of PsychogerontologyFriedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-NürnbergNürnbergGermany
  2. 2.Bielefeld UniversityBielefeldGermany