I’ve been reading a lot about death lately. More specifically, the psychology of death: how we think about death and how thinking about death affects our behavior. It’s a fascinating story, and I think it explains a lot about where the United States finds itself as a nation in 2019.

Age certainly isn’t the only thing that determines how often or how much we think about death, but if you step back far enough, there’s a reasonably clear picture. I doubt many would argue that thoughts of one’s own death—whether conscious or unconscious—are more common in those older than 60 than they are in those 25 and under. Can we agree on that much?

Well, as it happens, there are a lot more people older than 60 in the U.S. than there used to be. The fraction of the U.S. population that’s older than 60 has grown by 8.5% over the last 50 years (from 30 million to 75 million). And the fraction of the U.S. population that’s 25 and under has dropped by 13.9%. [1] So based on age demographics alone, the “average citizen” in the U.S. is more likely to be thinking about his/her own death in 2019 than was the case (on average) in 1970.

In their book, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, three psychologists explain the results of thirty years researching the effect that thinking about death has on behavior. [2] These findings are, frankly, frightening. In fact, the name of the theory they’ve been developing and testing is “Terror Management Theory.” Their experiments have demonstrated that humans have death on their minds a lot of the time, though these thoughts are most often unconscious.

We spend a lot of our lives managing, containing, distract ourselves from, and soothing ourselves from these thoughts. Risky behaviors, substance abuse, and conspicuous consumption are all more prominent in people who have death on their minds a lot, especially in the absence of a key antidote: self esteem. The findings of Terror Management Theory suggest that self esteem is important in regulating our reactions to death thoughts.

When death thoughts are conscious, we tend to try to make them go away, through distraction or outright denial. We’re really good at distracting ourselves, aren’t we? We’ve created industries and social movements for distraction: sports and tournaments, storytelling, art, music, plays and musicals, mega performances, books, radio, television, video games… I recently learned that travel as a form of distraction is one of our more recent inventions: it wasn’t popular for ordinary people until the early twentieth century. [3] Ironically, even war can be a form of distraction from death: defining and then investing membership, personal time and effort, shared experience, and mythologies in tribes and nations that live on even when individuals die, and bestowing cultural immortality on heroes. How much of what we humans do day-to-day is ultimately driven by the need to distract us from the inevitability of death? I don’t know, but I’ll bet it’s a good chunk of it all. I know it is for me, personally.

When death thoughts are unconscious, they cause some really nasty behaviors. Psychological experiments have shown that subjects who are primed with death thoughts, allowed time to dismiss them (through distraction or other activities), then asked to make moral choices and judgements tend to be more judgemental, more tribal/nationalistic, and tend to choose harsher punishments for transgressors than people who were not primed, or even people who were primed but not given time to move on. Under these conditions, people are more likely to choose violent responses to other religions, cultural groups, or even families. Again, self esteem seems key to reducing these effects, but when one’s self esteem is eroded or compromised, truly nasty behaviors can result.

Why is this? One of several ways we unconsciously manage our awareness of our personal mortality is to take solace in cultural immortality: the idea that while we, as individuals, will die, we are part of something larger than ourselves that will live on much longer: our nations, our religions, our cultures, our families. Consequently, when we feel our culture, our nation, or our family is threatened, it exacerbates any insecurities we may have about our personal mortality. More psychological experiments have shown that perceived threats to one’s culture, nation, family, or religion result in an increased frequency of death thoughts, whether the threat was mortal or not. Mere disrespect toward one’s cultural group can increase associations with death significantly. And the same works in reverse: the more we feel our cultural immortality threatened, the more our reactions to perceived threats become harsher, judgmental, and vindictive.

So, what do we get when we combine our changing demographics with this knowledge of how death thoughts affect behavior?  Not only is there a greater portion of the US population that is of an age where thinking of death is more common, there are also many changes underway in demographics, the economy, and politics that are likely to be perceived as threats to culture.

The theory predicts this should result in stronger nationalism, harsher and more violent reactions to perceived threats–especially threats to nation, culture, and religion–and more attempts at self-distraction and self-soothing, including both entertainment and drugs. Sound familiar?

As I read about Terror Management Theory and the predictions it makes, I felt many were eerily similar to recent news stories. I found myself hoping the book had been published recently enough that perhaps the authors were responding to things that had already happened: the election of President Trump, the wave of racially motivated hate killings and mass shootings, the demonization of the press in the United States, Brexit in the U.K. and the rise of Boris Johnson, etc… But the book was actually published in 2015: the year before our latest election.

[1] “World Population Prospects 2019” United Nations Population Division

[2] Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Random House, 2015.

[3] Yuval Noah Harari. A Brief History of Humankind. Harper, 2014.

2 Replies to “Our struggle with death

  1. Hm. I think a *lot* about death. I probably think about it much more than the average person does. But I don’t feel that it makes me more tribal or nationalistic. So for me, personally, this description doesn’t feel like it fits at all. I do see your point, though, and if this trend *does* hold true for most people, then it is very concerning.

    Anyway, this is an interesting topic!

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