Death Anxiety

In 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning book Denial of Death, which is a brilliant psychoanalysis on humanity’s psychological anxiety about his or her own mortality. By invoking existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and social philosopher Norman O. Brown, as well as psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank, he lays out an impressive case that man denies his mortality and, therefore, his death or finitude.  The argument Becker makes is that man is dualistic in nature, consisting of the spiritual self, our mind, and the physical self, our body.  It is man’s realization that our physical self is finite, that our bodies are to die, that creates the subconscious fear of death.  In order for man to overcome this fear, known as thanatophobia, he increases his self –esteem by creating a “causa-sui”project through the use of cultural symbols. For Becker, man’s causa-sui, or “cause of self”project is the attainment of immortality as a means of self-preservation.

Before we begin, there should be an explanation of the usage of the word “denial” in this case. As per Merriam -Webster online, there are six definitions. The most common usage would be “the refusal to admit the truth or reality of something” or “the refusal to acknowledge a person or a thing”.  But, there is another definition that is more applicable to Becker. The psychologicaldefinition is “a defensemechanismin which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality”. The difference is subtle, but meaningful. In the first case, we deny the truth because we simply refuse to believe or acknowledge a truth, such as some do with scientific or factual claims. This type of denial may be the result of pride, ignorance or ideology. However, denial as a defense mechanismsignifies a threat that can be either physical or existential in nature. Becker, as well as many other prominent psychoanalysts, believes that we deny death as a way to cope with the eventual decay of our physical body or the threat that we will at some time cease to be.

Using Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection, we learned that all living creatures seek self-preservation.  This is done, in part, through procreation. The human animal is no different in this physical sense, but what makes man different is our mind.  And, it is with our minds that we can conceive our own mortality and it’s eventuality. As Becker colorfully explains, “(Man) was given a consciousness of his individuality and his part-divinity in creation…At the same time he was given the consciousness of the terror of the world and of his own death and decay.”  (Becker, 1973) To overcome our innate anxiety towards death, we engage in the “immortality” project by becoming a heroic or significant member of culture.  What culture represents is “a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.” (Becker, 1973)This heroism is attained by “…carving out a place in nature, by building or edifice that reflects human value…” (Becker, 1973). Per Becker, the reason we do this – “The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they live or outshine death and decay…” (Becker, 1973). Stated differently, because of humanity’s ability to imagine our death, and to know it’s certainty, we strive to become significant contributors to our culture in an attempt to achieve immortality even in the symbolic sense. The causa-suiproject can result in great achievement or great shame.  Whether it’s Freud’s need to create a psychological revolution or Hitler’s attempt to create a master race or Donald Trump putting his name on a building, Becker argues that these acts can be attributed to the subject’s fear of death or presence of death anxiety.

Becker’s book, however, is a psychologicalexplanation of death anxiety and short on empirical evidence.  That doesn’t preclude it from being an important work, however.  Others, such as social psychologist, Dr. Sheldon Solomon, have picked up where Becker left off and, in fact, has gone miles further by getting the evidence to back up Becker’s theory.  In The Worm at the Core, written by Solomon and his two partners Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, they present evidence of the effects of death anxiety in our contemporary culture.  In one experiment, they had two groups of judges decide on the same case of a prostitute named “Carol Ann”. An experimental group of judges was reminded of their own mortality through a simple two-question survey, while a control group was not.  In determining bail for Carol Ann, they found “The judges in the control group…imposed an average bond of $50. However, the judges reminded of their death hammered Carol Ann…with a far more punitive bond – on average, $455, more than nine times the typical tab.” (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2015). This shows that a death reminder can affect how even the most impartial among us can be impacted when their sense of mortality is heightened.

Death anxiety affects how we consume and purchase as well.  Solomon and his team write, “…studies have shown that people who view death most negatively are most attracted to high-status material possessions, especially if they have shaky self-esteem.” (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2015). We’ll come back to self-esteem in a moment, but let’s expand on the materialism aspect. A study done for the Journal of Consumer Researchconcluded that “…materialistic individuals form strong connections to their brands as a means of coping with existential security.” (Rindfleisch, Burroughs, & Wong, 2009). Urien Bertrand and William Kilbourne, in an article for the Association for Consumer Research, concluded, “…because of existential difficulties with death, consumers might adopt consumption strategies that attempt to circumvent their inevitable demise. Growing evidence suggests that this might be the case as DA (death anxiety) appears to increase certain aspects of materialism.”  (Bertrand & Kilbourne, 2008)In other words, subconscious anxiety over death actually makes us better and more loyal consumers.

Of self-esteem, Becker writes, “In man a working level of narcissism is inseparable from self-esteem…” (Becker, 1973)Solomon and his team continue further by explaining, “…self-esteem is the feeling that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe.” (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2015). Why is self-esteem so important? Those of us who lack self-esteem “struggle with anxiety as well as a host of physical, psychological and interpersonal difficulties”. (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2015). They go on to show that self-esteem actually buffers anxiety and those with higher self-esteem are less apt to feel death anxiety.  They prove this in an experiment by using two questionnaires given to two separate groups. One group received a positive message on the subject’s personality while the other group received one with a neutral message on the subject’s personality. After watching a clip from the movie Faces of Death, a grotesque movie with scenes depicting actual deaths, the subjects were given different questionnaires to measure anxiety and self-esteem. As the researchers guessed, “…the participants who received the positive personality assessment reported higher self-esteem than those who received the neutral assessment…those who received neutral evaluations reported more anxiety…” (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2015)

The relationship between self-esteem and death anxiety is irrefutable. In a Medical News Today article, Maria Cohut writes, “…according to TMT (Terror Management Theory), self esteem is the key for the degree to which individuals experience death anxiety. People with high self-esteem are better at managing their fear of death, while people with low self-esteem are more easily intimidated by death-related situations.” (Cohut, 2017)In a paper for the American Psychological Association, Solomon and his team conclude that “…reminders of one’s mortality increase self-esteem striving and defense of self-esteem…high levels of self-esteem eliminate the effect of reminders of mortality on both self-esteem striving and the accessibility of death-related thoughts…” (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004)Bertrand and Kilbourne write, “…the more individuals subscribe to and respect the values of their culture, the more their self-esteem increases and the less anxious they feel about their own deaths.” (Bertrand & Kilbourne, 2008)Oddly enough, for fans of heavy metal music, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. In a study for the American Psychological Association, one study concluded that “…metal music made further support of self-esteem unnecessary for fans whereas nonfans still had the need to increase their self-esteem.” (Kneer & Rieger, 2015)So, if you need a self-esteem pick-me-up to diminish your death anxiety, just listen to death metal like Slayer, Venom or Cannibal Corpse.

Death anxiety is real. Ernest Becker set the wheels in motion by collecting and expounding upon the ideas and theories of great philosophers and psychologists such as Kierkegaard and Freud.  He stated that the foundation of our death anxiety is “…that man is a union of opposites, of self-consciousness and of physical body.” (Becker, 1973)Dr. Sheldon Solomon, among others, took the words and ideas of Becker and tested it so that we could find empirical data to prove not only that Becker was right, that we do have an innate fear of death, but that our significance in culture and resulting self-esteem is what diminishes that terror.  Because of Becker’s brilliant arguments, we have been able to do the research to know things like the fact that women tend to have higher death anxiety than men and that there is a correlation between education level and socioeconomic status and the level of their death anxiety. (Cohut, 2017). We know that death anxiety affects our role as a consumer and that it could affect even the most supposedly impartial among us.  This is just some of the data that support’s Becker’s revolutionary claims. The question now becomes – what do we do now? I think Solomon, Greenburg and Pyszczynski say it best in the closing of The Worm at the Core:

Come to terms with death. Really grasp that being mortal, while terrifying, can also make our lives sublime by infusing us with courage, compassion and concern for future generations. Seek enduring significance through your own combination of meanings and values, social connections, spirituality, personal accomplishments, identifications with nature, and momentary experiences of transcendence.

This innate fear of death we all share is derived from both the curse of our decaying body and the blessing of our limitless imagination. To overcome this anxiety, this terror, we seek to determine our meaningfulness and build our self-esteem through experiences as simple as a pat on the back for a job well done or seeing a goal fulfilled or spending time with the ones we love. And, we can gain self-esteem by being a cultural hero, an overachiever, someone whose name is etched in our history books. Self -esteem is the buffer we use to protect us from the feelings we get when we realize we are mortal. We need not fear death. We have a life worth living, one that we can ascribe our own meaning to and that should be our causa-sui project. Rather than fear our inevitable demise, we should celebrate every moment we are given before that day comes. Don’t be terrorized about thoughts of death, just be excited about life.




Works Cited

Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death.New York: Simon and Schuster.

Bertrand, U., & Kilbourne, W. (2008). On the Role of Materialism in the Relationship Between Death Anxiety and Quality of Life. Association for Consumer Research, 7.

Cohut, M. (2017, August). Death Anxiety: The fear that drives us? Medical News Today.

Kneer, J., & Rieger, D. (2015). The Memory Remains: How Heavy Metal Fans Buffer Against the Fear of Death. Psychology of Popular Music Culture, 14.

Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why Do People Need Self-Esteem? A Theoretical and Empirical View. Psychological Bulletin.

Rindfleisch, A., Burroughs, E. J., & Wong, N. (2009, June). The Safety of Objects: Materialism, Existential Security, and brand Connection. Journal of Consumer Research.

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The Worm at the Core:On the Role of Death in Life.New York: Random House.