It’s “the worm at the core” of your life: the knowledge that you will die. And who can blame you if you assiduously push the worm to the back of your mind, right?
But then along come three experimental psychologists who cook up all kinds of crafty tests to analyze exactly what the worm is doing to you. They take Ernest Becker’s 1973 classic, “The Denial of Death,” and go all empirical with it, gathering actual data on how fear of death seems to affect people, from romance and shopping to war and, yes, 2016 politics.
So even though you may not want to look death in the face, you might want to peek at what the psychologists found in their research spanning hundreds of studies over 25 years. Because really, even though you may need your denial to get through the day, it’s arguably insane to spend a life pretending away its central fact. At the very least, you can try to understand what all that denial is doing to you.
Skidmore College professor Sheldon Solomon, co-author of the team’s new book, “The Worm At The Core: On The Role of Death In Life,” spoke recently at Boston’s Museum of Science, and I damped down my own denial and asked him about mortality.
A taste of what he said: “Whenever people are reminded of death, they love people who share their beliefs and they hate people who are different. They sit closer to people who share their beliefs and they sit further away from anyone who looks different. And if we give people in a laboratory setting an opportunity to physically harm someone who’s different, after people are reminded of their mortality they become much more hostile and vicious.”
Here’s our conversation, lightly edited:
How would you summarize your central idea?
What we would say, in a proverbial nutshell, is that one way of thinking about what makes human beings unique is the fact that while we share with all forms of life a basic inclination toward self-preservation, we are arguably unique because of our big forebrain, which gives us the capacity to think abstractly and symbolically, to dwell on the past and anticipate the future.
“We wouldn’t be able to stand up in the morning. We’d just be quivering blobs of biological protoplasm cowering under our beds.”
And because of that we’re smart enough to realize that like all living things, we will someday die; that we could die at any time, for reasons we cannot anticipate or control; and that like it or not, we’re animals, breathing pieces of defecating meat, no more significant or enduring than lizards or potatoes.
And our claim is — and this is based on Ernest Becker, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “The Denial of Death” — that if that’s all we thought about, ‘I’m gonna die! I could walk outside and get hit by a comet! I’m a cold cut with an attitude!’ then we wouldn’t be able to stand up in the morning. We’d just be quivering blobs of biological protoplasm cowering under our beds.
And what we believe, following Becker, is that the way that human beings come to terms with the potentially debilitating existential terror that’s engendered by the awareness of death is to embed ourselves in culturally constructed beliefs about the nature of reality — what the anthropologists call culture.
What culture does is to give us a sense that life is meaningful and that we’re valuable. It tells us where we came from, it tells us what we’re supposed to do while we’re alive. It gives us some hope of immortality in the hereafter, either literally — through the heavens, the afterlives and souls of all the world’s great religions — or symbolically: We may know we’re not going to be here forever but we’re still comforted by the fact that some vestige of of our existence will persist nevertheless — perhaps by having children, or by amassing great fortunes, or by doing something noteworthy in the arts or sciences.
And so the argument is that what makes us unique is that we know that we will someday die, and this gives rise to potentially paralyzing terror that we reduce by believing that we’re people of value in a world of meaning. And whether we’re aware of it or not — and most of the times we’re not — everything that we do, for the most part, is in the service of maintaining a sense that life has meaning and that we have value in order to reduce death anxiety.
So that fear of death is insidiously affecting our behavior all the time…
Absolutely. Because otherwise this might be right but trite. If it were obvious, then maybe we would all know this and be talking about it. But I think what makes these ideas both subtle as well as potentially profound — and profoundly interesting — is that the argument is that most of us don’t think about death all that much. And the reason is that we’re comfortably ensconced in a cultural worldview that is sufficient to allow us to stand up every day.
But your team’s work picks apart what those effects are experimentally.
That’s correct. Ernest Becker won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Denial of Death” and these are all his ideas. And people just said, ‘Well, this is shocking nonsense.’ Or, ‘This is interesting but speculative and can’t be tested.’ So 35 years ago, right out of graduate school — we’re experimental social psychologists, my buddies Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski and I — we said, ‘Well, why can’t we try and test these ideas?’
The very first study we did was with municipal court judges in Tucson, Arizona. We divided them randomly into two groups. And we just told the judges we wanted them to look at a typical court case and assign bond for an alleged prostitute. What we did was to randomly divide the judges into two groups, where one of them was reminded of their mortality by answering two open-ended questions: Just describe your thoughts and feelings about your own death. And: Jot down what you think will happen to you physically when you die. Continue reading