Cultural Death Illiteracy as Applied Terror Management Theory by: Dr. Tamara Waraschinski

Born and reared in Germany, as well as lived in Australia for a little over a third of my life, I never envisioned experiencing such a cultural shock moving to the United States three years ago.  I just couldn’t imagine that there would be such a difference between Western countries that supposedly share the same cultural values of “democracy and freedom”. I wasn’t prepared for the abject poverty that marbles its way through the fabric of this society. I wasn’t prepared for a society of people who seem drained, exhausted, in miserable health, overworked but forever guilt-ridden about taking much needed time off. I didn’t expect that people in the U.S. presumably have no concept of self care, care for others or even others’ different life experiences; yet, in the same breath are hell-bent on judging right from wrong within a very narrow cultural framework that flows directly into an almost obsessive-compulsive need to punish.

As an outside-turned-insider, I am seeing that the experience of living in the United States means being constantly surrounded by latently looming aggression, violence, and death. Perhaps harsh, but living in the U.S. for the last three years of my life has taught me that the heightened exposure to death and illness can undermine or, at the very least, challenge the concepts one has about oneself, the world, and others, and this in turn leads to death anxiety. The researchers Lehto and Stein (2009) have demonstrated that death anxiety is negatively related to perceptions of life satisfaction, meaning, and purpose. People have developed defense mechanisms to ward off death anxiety. For instance, high self-esteem, which has been associated with cultural belongingness, can be an effective buffer against death anxiety if it acts as a mechanism for reinforcing cultural beliefs rather than succumbing to challenges that require a transformation of those beliefs (Lehto and Stein 2009: 27). 

Terror Management Theory (TMT for short) is an important strand of empirical research within death scholarship that focuses exclusively on the impact of (unconscious) death anxiety in everyday life. The central thesis of terror management theory is the idea that becoming aware of death has consequences for people (Darell and Pyszczynski 2016: 2). TMT developed in the mid-80s and is based on the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. It draws its primary inspiration from Becker’s book The Denial of Death (1973) and pursues his idea that people are caught up in the inherent human paradox of being preoccupied with death, due to our species’ unique cognitive development of the ability to anticipate the future, through language and self-awareness. Paradoxically, the consequence of mortality awareness is an ever-present fear of death that needs to be kept at bay in order to maintain a productive and functioning world. If that wasn’t the case, then how would people return to doing mundane and monotonous things like washing dishes and paying taxes?

In Becker’s thinking, as adopted by TMT, cultures and societies are manifestations of the belief that human existence is meaningful, significant, and unending (Darell and Pyszczynski 2016: 2). By living up to the standards that society provides, one’s existence gains value because it connects the individual to something grander — Becker’s hero system theory — which is also a theory of self-esteem – understands society as a codified system of ideological justification of one’s self worth. Since societies are heterogeneous there are many systems, which are defined as “the shared illusion of permanence and immortality among members of all cultures that gives the social myth its power” (Darell and Pyszczynski 2016: 2–3). 

The original concept of TMT addresses self-esteem, how it is acquired and maintained, and why it is needed. Becker understands the hero as a symbolic ideal, or symbolic standard, a representation of “cultural values condensed into an ideal form of humanity” (Darell and Pyszczynski 2016: 3). This archetypal role of the hero sets the measure (standards of shared social values and beliefs) against which an individual can compare her/him/themself. Classic examples of the hero would be a John Wayne type who is seen as pillar for their community. In addition, think about how the United Stated fetishizes its military personnel to the extent that strangers hug them in public without their consent, “thanking” them for their service. Then there is the exaggerated version of the super-hero whose supernatural powers defy ordinary human constraints. The closer one comes towards the hero archetype, the greater the level of self-esteem, which translates into individual feelings of emotional security strong enough to buffer existential fear, anxiety, or terror. 

According to TMT (Darell and Pyszczynski 2016), cultural perceptions provide a shared lens for viewing life and reality in a way that gives meaning and significance. This makes for a great community of like-minded people. Over time, these particular and shared perceptions become solidified/calcified and experiences and views outside of these beliefs appear alien and sometimes threatening. While such dense world views can provide some hope of (symbolic) immortality, these perceptions are often quite fragile to withstand scrutiny and critique from outsiders with a different perspective. What follows is that the individual will distance him/her/ themself from others with different views, but seek out people with similar attitudes and cultural norms (Stillman and Harvell 2016: 80). 

Based on factual evidence, 20 years research, with 500 experiments conducted in over 30 countries, TMT research comes to the conclusion that close relationships, self-esteem, and world views play an important role as an anxiety buffer in the mortality-aware human. Yet death remains the invisible elephant in the room. Darell and Pyszczynski argue: 

At its heart, TMT posits that people are consistently, and unconsciously, motivated to maintain faith in their cultural worldviews, self-esteem, and close relationships to protect themselves from the anxiety produced by the awareness that death is inescapable. 

(Darell and Pyszczynski 2016: 6)

One of the major lines of evidence that supports TMT is the mortality salience hypothesis – which simply means this: if cultural world views provide a buffer against the fear of death, then explicitly reminding people of death should increase the defense of world views, self-esteem, and attachment (Darell and Pyszczynski 2016: 6). TMT has generated plenty of evidence that, when death is brought to the forefront of awareness, the psychological structures of cultural world view, self-esteem, and close relationship act as a barrier against death awareness. By extension, TMT has found that, if psychological structures shield against existential anxiety, strengthening these structures makes the individual less susceptible to death anxiety and anxiety in general. In other words, strong attachments to a group – be it your sports team, a sewing club, the local church or disturbingly enough, white supremacists groups like KKK – bring a sense of safety, belonging, and comfort. That is called the anxiety buffer hypothesis (Darell and Pyszczynski 2016: 10). 

Reverse logic suggests that challenges to cultural world views, self-esteem, and close attachments increase the accessibility of death-related thoughts. In TMT this is called the death-thought accessibility hypothesis and it shows that, with under-perceived cultural threats, the subversion of one’s self-esteem, and especially the threat of separation from a close relationship, death-related thoughts are more accessible (interestingly, this does not increase other negative and adverse thoughts that are not related to death) (Darell and Pyszczynski 2016: 9). For instance, during a recent family summer trip to the lake, after a fun hour of swimming and explorations of the shorelines with a lightweight plastic kayak, we were headed back because my 5-year-old (who was in the kayak with me) got cold. She fussed and complained and my attempt to distract her by pointing out a big crane resulted in us plunging into the water. While this wasn’t a life-threatening situation (wearing our our life-vests and in shallow water) she clearly wasn’t impressed with my kayaking skills. Everybody was okay and we’d already forgotten about it once all dried and warm again.  But that night in my dreams people were trapped underwater and died. In one of these dream sequences I saw my daughter’s life-preserver failing and her sinking towards the deep dark muddy depths of the lake where I couldn’t follow to save her. The real life experience wasn’t threatening, but it brought up my fears of losing my children.

In another, broader cultural sense, consider people in the medical profession who are generally more exposed to death and dying than the average person. Proximity to death, as discussed earlier, enhances the attachment to one’s world view and the need to preserve self-esteem, but it also means it increases stereotypic thinking. Now studies have exposed a serious, internalized bias in privileged and highly educated white people believing Blacks have greater pain-tolerance than whites — expertly skilled medical professionals, committing themselves to the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.  Nevertheless, this is white supremacy in action, a collective unconscious assumption played out on the individual level.

Whites reminded of their mortality also tend to be more lenient towards racists. Still stereotypic thinking and preferences aren’t bound to one race. This, too, is (internalized) white supremacy in action. I believe that the question of self-esteem for minorities need to be understood within a historical framework of trauma and pain that flows like a bloodied thread throughout family histories and into minorities’ contemporary brutal corporeal experiences. In regards to stereotypic thinking and racism in a paradoxically death illiterate health care system, medical institutions commit great violence against people of color, whether in Australia, New Zealand or the USA, (and there is evidence for the same in Germany, too, although in-depth studies are still lacking). The deadly fallout is heartbreaking. Building self-esteem in an environment that continuously denies your full humanity is a radical act of resistance, which, does expose oneself to higher levels of violence (think about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fate).

From this, we must understand that the dominant world view, the so-called ideal form of humanity or so-called hero system and the seductive center of power might be best analyzed through a lens that gives credit to the many various forms of oppression which are networking against the people on the bottom of the social pyramid. 

Death anxiety isn’t an abstract existential threat to minorities. It’s a lived experience denied and ridiculed in a world that values the white body, the white accumulation of wealth and status as the pinnacle of existence.

Works Cited

Becker, E 1973, The Denial of Death, The Free Press, New York.

Darell, A & Pyszczynski, T 2016, “Terror Management Theory: Exploring the Role of Death in Life,” in Denying Death: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Terror Management Theory. A Harvell & GS Nisbett (eds), Routledge, New York, pp. 1–15. 

Lehto, RH & Stein, KF 2009, “Death Anxiety: An Analysis of an Evolving Concept,” Research and Theory for Nursing Practice, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 23–41. 

Stillman, TF & Harvell, LA 2016, “Marketing, money, and mortality,” in Denying Death: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Terror Management Theory. A Harvell & GS Nisbett (eds), Routledge, New York, pp. 79–89. 

2 Comments

  • Ellen Summerfield

    Fascinating and thought-provoking analysis, Tamara. I especially like your image of abject poverty “marbling” itself through society and your description of yourself as outsider-turned-insider. That status gives you valuable, uncommon insights. Thank you and congratulations to you and your colleagues for launching this website.

  • Lyla

    As a former TMT researcher, absolutely excellent description and understanding of the theory, capturing all the different components in a very accessible way! Very excited to see the creation of Radical Death Studies and this much-needed intersectionality in the field of mortality research! Often our cultural worldviews and hero systems are serving to systematically perpetuate oppression, and this cannot continue to be invisible. Thank you for this work.

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