|A Better Life Through Fear of Death|
|Living - The Dialogue|
|TS-Si News Service|
|Sunday, 22 April 2012 08:00|
Columbia, MO, USA. Conscious or not, mortality awareness helps us re-prioritize goals and values, promote helping others, and improve physical health, says a new study."This tendency for TMT research to primarily deal with negative attitudes and harmful behaviors has become so deeply entrenched in our field that some have recently suggested that death awareness is simply a bleak force of social destruction," says lead author Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri. "There has been very little integrative understanding of how subtle, day-to-day, death awareness might be capable of motivating attitudes and behaviors that can minimize harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being."
An analysis in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review (PSPR) argues that thinking about death can actually be a good thing. Even non-conscious thinking about death say walking by a cemetery could prompt positive changes and promote helping others.
Past research suggests that thinking about death is destructive and dangerous, fueling everything from prejudice and greed to violence. Such studies related to Terror Management Theory (TMT), which posits that we uphold certain cultural beliefs to manage our feelings of mortality, have rarely explored the potential benefits of death awareness. However, a survey of recent scientific studies draws different conclusions.
Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.
Meditations. Marcus Aurelius (c. 169). In G. Long (Trans.). Mount Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper (1957).
In constructing a new model for how we think about our own mortality, Vail and colleagues performed an extensive review of recent studies on the topic. They found numerous examples of experiments both in the lab and field that suggest a positive side to natural reminders about mortality.
For example, Vail points to a 2008 study by Matthew Gailliot and colleagues in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB) that tested how just being physically near a cemetery affects how willing people are to help a stranger. "Researchers hypothesized that if the cultural value of helping was made important to people, then the heightened awareness of death would motivate an increase in helping behaviors," Vail says.
The researchers observed people who were either passing through a cemetery or were one block away, out of sight of the cemetery. Actors at each location talked near the participants about either the value of helping others or a control topic, and then some moments later, another actor dropped her notebook. The researchers then tested in each condition how many people helped the stranger.
"When the value of helping was made salient, the number of participants who helped the second confederate with her notebook was 40% greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery," Vail says. "Other field experiments and tightly controlled laboratory experiments have replicated these and similar findings, showing that the awareness of death can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism."
For example, a 2010 study by Immo Fritsche of the Universität Leipzig and co-authors revealed how increased death awareness can motivate sustainable behaviors when pro-environmental norms are made salient. And a study by Zachary Rothschild of the University of Kansas and co-workers in 2009 showed how an increased awareness of death can motivate American and Iranian religious fundamentalists to display peaceful compassion toward members of other groups when religious texts make such values more important.
Thinking about death can also promote better health. Recent studies have shown that when reminded of death people may opt for better health choices, such as using more sunscreen, smoking less, or increasing levels of exercise. A 2011 study by D.P. Cooper and co-authors found that death reminders increased intentions to perform breast self-exams when women were exposed to information that linked the behavior to self-empowerment.
One major implication of this body of work, Vail says, is that we should "turn attention and research efforts toward better understanding of how the motivations triggered by death awareness can actually improve people's lives, rather than how it can cause malady and social strife." Write the authors: "The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life."
CitationWhen Death is Good for Life: Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management. Kenneth E. Vail III, Jacob Juhl, Jamie Arndt, Matthew Vess, Clay Routledge, Bastiaan T. Rutjens. Personality and Social Psychology Review 2012. doi:10.1177/1088868312440046
Research derived from terror management theory (TMT) has shown that people’s efforts to manage the awareness of death often have deleterious consequences for the individual and society. The present article takes a closer look at the conceptual foundations of TMT and considers some of the more beneficial trajectories of the terror management process. The awareness of mortality can motivate people to enhance their physical health and prioritize growth-oriented goals; live up to positive standards and beliefs; build supportive relationships and encourage the development of peaceful, charitable communities; and foster open-minded and growth-oriented behaviors. The article also tentatively explores the potential enriching impact of direct encounters with death. Overall, the present analysis suggests that although death awareness can, at times, generate negative outcomes, it can also function to move people along more positive trajectories and contribute to the good life.
Keywords: terror management, death/mortality salience, positive, social cognition, health, norms/social roles, helping/prosocial behavior, close relationships, intergroup relations, motivation/goals.
|Last Updated on Sunday, 22 April 2012 13:45|