Terror Management Theory

There have been some references to Terror Management Theory in discussions about longevity within the Facebook Group “Posthuman Network”:

Here’s the complete start of the Wikipedia article:

In social psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning.[1][2] The theory was originally proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski.[1]

The simplest examples of cultural values that manage the terror of death are those that purport to offer literal immortality (e.g. belief in afterlife, religion).[3] However, TMT also argues that other cultural values – including those that are seemingly unrelated to death – offer symbolic immortality. For example, value of national identity,[4] posterity,[5] cultural perspectives on sex,[6] and human superiority over animals[6] have all been linked to death concerns in some manner. In many cases these values are thought to offer symbolic immortality by providing the sense that one is part of something greater that will ultimately outlive the individual (e.g. country, lineage, species).

Because cultural values determine that which is meaningful, they are also the basis for self-esteem. TMT describes self-esteem as being the personal, subjective measure of how well an individual is living up to their cultural values.[2] Like cultural values, self-esteem acts to protect one against the terror of death. However, it functions to provide one’s personal life with meaning, while cultural values provide meaning to life in general.

TMT is derived from anthropologist Ernest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction The Denial of Death, in which Becker argues most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death. The terror of absolute annihilation creates such a profound – albeit subconscious – anxiety in people that they spend their lives attempting to make sense of it. On large scales, societies build symbols: laws, religious meaning systems, cultures, and belief systems to explain the significance of life, define what makes certain characteristics, skills, and talents extraordinary, reward others whom they find exemplify certain attributes, and punish or kill others who do not adhere to their cultural worldview. On an individual level, self-esteem provides a buffer against death-related anxiety.

While to me it looks like just another reductionist theory which aims at simplifying human psychology down to one single leitmotif, it may still have some merit and could be used to explain some phenomena in human psychology and society. In transhumanist circles, TMT is used in an attempt to explain the prevalence of “deathist” ideologies which blocks even entertaining the idea that we could defeat ageing and death to a meaningful degree. I am unsure about how far this coincides with the truth. The main reason for deatlhist thinking may still just be status quo bias. Death has not been defeated yet. People have learned to deal with the discomforting thought of mortality their whole lives. They have learned to deal with a world in which death is a given. Society seems stable when people are obliged to die due from natural or other causes. A potentially new state of people living indefinitely would upend the whole order of the world and that’s why this idea gets rejected vehemently – just as other disruptive ideas which threaten the status quo. Nothing special about death after all?