Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory (TMT), in social psychology, starts with the basic psychological conflict between wanting to live and having the self-awareness to know that death is inevitable. This conflict is believed to be unique to humans, and is solved with a uniquely human solution: cultures. By creating, and in turn investing in, these symbolic systems of meaning and value, humans gain a sense of literal immortality (afterlife belief) and/or symbolic immortality (the sense that they will live on through others and culture). Cultural values also provide the blueprint for what matters, and as such, are the basis by which self-esteem is derived. From a TMT perspective, self-esteem and worldviews are the primary defenses against the potential terror elicited by mortality awareness, though research has found that relationships and a more general need for psychological structure also protect people from mortality concerns.

The terror management theory posits that when people are reminded of their own deaths, they more readily defend these cultural beliefs and act to enhance, or at least protect, their self-esteem. Experiments conducted by Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski, and Jeff Greenberg sought to lend evidence to the concept that mortality salience, or the awareness of one's own death, affects the decision making of groups and individuals.

The theory purports to help explain human activity both at the individual and societal level. It is derived from anthropologist Ernest Becker's 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction The Denial of Death, in which Becker argues most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death. The terror of absolute annihilation creates such a profound—albeit subconscious—anxiety in people that they spend their lives attempting to make sense of it. On large scales, societies build symbols: laws, religious meaning systems, cultures, and belief systems to explain the significance of life, define what makes certain characteristics, skills, and talents extraordinary, reward others whom they find exemplify certain attributes, and punish or kill others who do not adhere to their cultural worldview. On an individual level, self-esteem provides a buffer against death-related anxiety.

Read more about Terror Management Theory:  Background, Terror Management Health Model, TMT and Self-esteem, TMT and Mortality Salience, Death Thought Accessibility, Emotion and TMT, TMT and Leadership, TMT and Religion, Criticisms

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