Terror Management Theory in a Nutshell

Freud and contingency. One of Sigmund Freud’s important insights is that each of us has a contingent history; that is, we each have been born into a particular place and time not of our choosing and live out our circumstances with very particular temperaments, strengths, weaknesses, and obsessions. Because of this, no two dreamers—nor their dreams—are exactly alike. Each person is, as Emily Dickinson put it, a peculiar “kangaroo among the beauty” in need of a unique and sympathetic interpretation. Individuals do things in each moment for reasons unique to their contingent circumstances; that is, their histories.

Existential situations akin to chess. You can’t change the contingencies that brought you to this moment. They are the facts of your situation (who your parents are; whether you missed the bus this morning; whether the air conditioner is working, etc.). Many contingent facts brought you to the very particular situation you find yourself in now. The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre calls each contingent moment in space and time an existential situation. Everybody gets one. And then you get another. Then another. In the chess game of life, the pieces are where they are, and it’s your move. That move will have consequences. Then it will be on you to move again.

Not moving is also a move.

The only thing certain is that, whatever move you make in response to your contingent moment, or whatever moves you make in the future, the Black Queen (death) is going to bring you down sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time.

As the elderly wife says to her elderly cheating husband in the 1980s film, Moonstruck, “No matter what it is you’re up to, Cosmo, you’re still going to die.”

Joining with others and Terror Management Theory. There are people who are quite certain that they see your existential chessboard far more clearly than you do. They may or may not be right about this, but they were also born with different strengths and weaknesses than you, and their existential situation is different. Still, they want you to make their moves, not your own. If they swim competitively, they may want you to swim competitively (or at least have an interest in watching them swim competitively). They esteem swimming and take esteem from swimming. They think you should do the same.

If you don’t, there’s an earthquake inside of them. They can’t stand it. How can any sane or moral person not see the value in what they value? If you don’t value what they value, they might even tell you you’re stupid or evil (or imply it). They do this not just because they might love you and want what’s best for you, but because their own confidence and esteem is weakened if others don’t come along with them in their projects.

Cultures are built around this impulse to get others to go along–to share dreams, life-framings, goals, and diversions. And you can attribute this impulse to death anxiety; the desire to resist with others the shadows of uncertainty, futility, and mortality. Death anxiety is the cradle of heroism, proselytizing, civilization, bowling leagues, gun shows, and temperance societies. We might not bother to make many friends (or enemies) without the specter of death. It gets us out more often.

That, at any rate, is Ernest Becker’s thesis in his book, The Denial of Death (1973). In recent years, a whole movement in psychology has been built up around this book. It goes by the name of “terror management theory” (TMT). In a nutshell, TMT makes the following plausible claims (backed up with some intriguing psychological research):

  • Born of the terror of death, to go on “individuals need to sustain faith in a meaningful worldview.”
  • Individuals also need to see themselves as “valued and protected members within” the group(s) they share a worldview with.
  • Death anxiety arouses individuals to engage in fight or flight responses against those people or things that might threaten their worldview (and the groups upholding their worldview). These responses may take sophisticated forms (engaging in subtle argumentation; setting up institutional structures to engage with the world) or be quite crass (bludgeoning an enemy to death in war; hiding away from outsiders in a wilderness commune).

Sophisticated or crass, our worldviews give us what TMT calls “immortality projects.” Religious fundamentalists imagine their immortality projects literally; others imagine them symbolically or through winning esteem from the groups they affiliate with. To achieve “immortality,” a person might, for example, behave heroically in battle, become excellent in a discipline or profession, have children, or make art or literature that survives him or her.

And if I might not live forever, I can at least believe that my group will, and thus I give my self-identity over to my group. I lay down my life for the group in war, for example, and I take comfort from being a part of a greater collective project, as when communists in Russia in the early 20th century imagined that they were giving their lives to the building of a utopia, a heaven on Earth.

And if worse comes to worse, we still have diversions to comfort us on our way to Final Checkmate (such as our dogs, cell phones, and gardening). Voltaire famously ends his novella Candide with a character saying with exhausted resignation, “We must cultivate our garden.” And Woody Allen has Larry David say in one his films, “Whatever works.”

We are, in short, all on the same Titanic. And this ought to give us some empathy for others, regardless of the chess game they’re playing (or how well or badly they’re playing it). The philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote,“Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere: Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.” Though the list is not entirely coherent, we all want the same things—comfort, love, challenge, truth, novelty, meaning, kindness, esteem, power, understanding, happiness, immortality (literal or symbolic)—we just pursue them in different ways. But our individual chess pieces are in dire straits thanks to death, so we need to manage the anxiety of that. That’s Terror Management Theory in a nutshell.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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One Response to Terror Management Theory in a Nutshell

  1. gnatseyeview says:

    Ernest Becker first and Terror Management Theory second gave me a great framework for expressing my sense of being. What I particularly like about the TMT people is they demonstrate it is possible to scientifically research existential issues in humans. You present a good overview.

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