We all get scared of the fatality of human life, but the Terror Management Theory may be affecting you more than you realize.

Fear of death is a natural reaction when we become aware of its inevitability. We all have our own ways of managing this fear, from acceptance to complete ignorance. The fear of death, however, is capable of shaping our behaviors without us even realizing. Terror Management Theory attempts to explain and explore how the fear of death affects us all.

What is Terror Management Theory?

It is a psychological attempt to explain a kind of defensive thinking which stems from an awareness and an acute fear of death. It supposes that humans have a biological predisposition towards self-preservation, but we are a unique species in the sense that we have symbolic thought.

This symbolic thought allows us to consider the future and reflect on the past. This brings about the realization that death is inevitable and cannot be controlled. This realization causes incredible fear and anxiety which humans must then manage.

Terror Management Theory explains how we manage this fear. It supposes that this fear and anxiousness cause people to adopt certain worldviews which protect self-esteem, self-worth, and sustainability. These worldviews then, in turn, cause behaviors in people which may vary from culture to culture.

Where does the Terror Management Theory come from?

Ernest Becker developed the concept in 1973, although it was not called this. Becker wrote The Denial of Death which addressed the tendency of humans to reject death and try to avoid it.

In The Worm at the CoreJeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski developed what is now known as Terror Management Theory. This book reviews the myriad of scientific papers and research which support Becker’s central claim that the fear of death is ‘the mainspring of human activity.’

There are now more than 500 studies on the subject. Each examines a different facet of human behavior associated with a fear of death, such as aggression, stereotyping, self-awareness and much, much more. Research shows that the fear of death can affect our behavior without us even realizing it, making research into Terror Management Theory incredibly important.

There are three lines of research which provide empirical support for Terror Management Theory:

  1. Higher self-esteem has a direct link to lower anxiety. This highlights that self-esteem offers anxiety relief and physiological arousal.
  2. When people think about themselves dying, attempts to defend their cultural worldviews becomes stronger. They become increasingly more responsive to similar actions in others and more aggressive to those who are not. Nationalism is a key example of this during wars and times of difficulty.
  3. Research shows that when cultural beliefs or self-esteem is threatened, non-conscious thoughts of death come to mind more frequently.

All of this is to say that the Terror Management Theory has a profound effect on our behaviors as an attempt to quell the fear of death.

How does our terror of death affect our behavior?

Terror Management Theory attempts to explain human attempts to manage the terror of death through the development of cultural worldviews. Worldviews are human formed systems of belief shared by individuals which attempt to minimize the fear of death. They do so by attributing meaning and value to different people, objects and rituals.

All cultures offer their own explanation of the value of human life in the universe. They each have a system of acceptable behaviors and reassure people with the promise of immortality for those who comply. We accept these systems in different religions and cultural norms which allow us to feel we will not be forgotten or somehow live on.

We can gain immortality either literally or symbolically.

Literal immortality is provided by the belief of souls, heavens and the afterlife. Some religions even offer reincarnation for those who are particularly virtuous in the eyes of that religion.

Symbolic immortality provided by ideas of a great nation, building expansive fortunes, having children and making important accomplishments. Although they do not promise us life after death, they reassure us that we will not be forgotten and somehow live on.

Terror Management Theory also attempts to explain why individuals perceive themselves of persons of greater value. It causes people to form deep bonds within their own cultural group to boost their self-esteem and personal significance. It is these tight bonds with our respective social groups which can lead to stereotyping and discrimination. This is because we like to think of our own group as being somewhat superior.

Fear of death is a global feeling. It is a natural human reaction to the inevitability that life comes to an end. What is interesting is how it can divide us into cultures fearing and feeling threatened by one another. We all react differently to the anxious thoughts of our inevitable demise.

Terror Management Theory attempts to explain human determination to forge a place in history. True immortality may or may not be possible. Yet, somehow, if we feel as though we will be remembered, we somehow mitigate the real effects of death.


  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/

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