Terror Management Theory and Its Implications for Older Adults
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.
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