Terror Management Theory

Anke Hofmann & Malte Schott

Terror-Management-Theory (TMT) concerns the question what happens with us when we are reminded of our own mortality. Since its original publication in 1986 (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon) it was quoted several thousand times and there are hundreds of publications about TMT – surely it is one of the most prominet theories within social psychology (Burke, Martens & Faucher, 2010).

The original question of TMT is based on observations and thoughts published by the social anthropologist Ernest Becker (1973) in his book „The Denial of Death“. Here, the fear of one‘s own death is described as fundamental for any behavior and for the development of values and culture.

Fear usually is experienced as unpleasant for us because often it occurs in situations that are uncontrollable. When we experience fear we do something to defend against the feeling or we avoid situations that are frightening to us. As we are unable to avoid our own death it is important to humans to do something meaningful – to see a purpose in life and to contribute to something or to be part of something that will outlast our own death. This strategy to cope with our fear of death is called terror-management (latin: terreo = to terrify so.) and is understood as an attempt of (symbolic) immortality.

Our defense strategies against the terror of mortality can, according to TMT, be summarized as worldview defense and the protection of self-esteem. That means mortality salience (MS) – to bring their own mortality to mind – drives people to defend their own cultural values, to support their own group and to disapprove of foreign groups. Significantly, no universal values or norms are supported here, but those culturally shaped attitudes fitting the particular person and his or her worldview. The same MS process that can lead US-Americans to support aggressive foreign policies may lead Iranians to support terrorism (Pyszczynski et al., 2006).

Thus, terror-management concerns both the coping processes against our fear of death by defending our self-esteem or worldview and the protection against potentially threatening foreigners and their alien cultures.

But what does that mean for climate-catastrophy?

It suggests itself to apply the TMT to climate-ctastrophy. Reports of natural disasters and the consequences of climate change are becoming more and more frequent. These reports pose a threat which can – as a form of MS – bring our own mortality to mind. Similarly, the terror attacks of 9-11 were interpreted according to TMT in order to explain increased support for President Georg W. Bush (Landau et al., 2004): conservative Americans were defending their own worldview by supporting their president.

However, a difficulty for our perspective arises from the fact that the experience of threat regarding climate catastrophy could affect us both in one way – or the opposite way. That is it could bring us to be more climate conscious and more supporting of actions and policies in the fight against climate catastrophy – or it could make people trivialize the whole subject of manmade climate-change and thus refuse climate- and environmental protection policies (Wolfe & Tubi, 2019). It makes a world of difference which worldview people have, if environmental protection is personally important to them, if ecological risks are experienced as near or far away or if threats are experienced as relevant for their own group. It is important to consider that fear provoking communication strategies in the domain of consumer behavior may have adverse effects regarding climate protection (Akil, Robert-Demontrond & Bouillé, 2018). Communication based on fear and loathing may lead individuals to consume even more and to rather refuse maesures to reduce emissions. Thus, it doesn‘t make much sense to talk about climate-catastrophy only in terms of a threat.

One possibility to address this problem could be to abstain from fear provoking narratives when reporting about the climate crisis and rather use positive stories to depict alternative scenarios (Daly, 2020). Ultimately however, the magnitude and the cataclysmal consequences of climate change will make it impossible to refrain from covering the vulnerability of ecosystems and the finite nature of life – and therefore within the framework of TMT effectively communicating mortality salience.

Hence, what remains to be done if coverage of the climate catastrophy necessarily triggers the processes described by terror management theory? What has to be done to not compromise – or better: to support – environmental protection under these circumstances? How can we facilitate nonconsumption and the willingness to support climate protection policies within the TMT framework?

It is plausible to assume that it could make a diffrence if we succeeed in describing the global problem of climate catastrophy as concerning all of us, all of humanity and not only separate groups (Pyszczynski et al., 2012). At least those defense strategies against MS that protect our own group and devalue foreign groups – to thus upvalue our own self-esteem – could thereby be prevented.

And of course the research area of TMT is still developing further and from the intersection with communication about climate change we may expect more detailled results, for example concerning possible approaches described by Wolfe and Tubi (2019).

But finally we can assume, with or without consideration of TMT and the thought of our individual mortality, that it is of prime importance to dare to get to the core of our convictions. We need to reshape our worldview and our self-esteem in a way that is not contradicting our goals of climate- and environmental protection. Probably the children and youth generations are more easily influenceable in a positive way as compared to older people. But we should make it our goal to accept sustainability as a matter of course – independantly of individual age. Maybe especially for older people it can even become some kind of cultural immortality to contribute to a liveable future for descendant generations.

We need to acquire a worldview that does not utilize climate-damaging consumption to generate self-esteem and cultural participation. We have to succeed in making responsible behavior and our individual share of global human culture – with respect for future generations – to our personal self-concept. Then the thought of our own mortality should not, in terms of TMT, lead to climate-denial or irresposible behavior. On the contrary, that should strengthen further our collective efforts against the climate catastrophy.

Literature

Akil, H., Robert-Demontrond, P., & Bouillé, J. (2018). Exploitation of mortality salience in communication on climate change. Recherche et Applications en Marketing (English Edition), 33(1), 2-29. DOI:10.1177/2051570717745839

Becker, E. (1997). The denial of death. Simon and Schuster.

Burke, B. L., Martens, A., & Faucher, E. H. (2010). Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(2), 155-195. DOI:10.1177/1088868309352321

Daly, D. (2020). A Storied Perspective on Climate Change: The Effects of Narrative Transportation and Mortality Salience on Pro-Environmental Behavior (Doctoral dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder).

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In Public self and private self (pp. 189-212). Springer, New York, NY.

Landau, M. J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., … & Cook, A. (2004). Deliver us from evil: The effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1136-1150.

Pyszczynski, T., Abdollahi, A., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., & Weise, D. (2006). Mortality salience, martyrdom, and military might: The great Satan versus the axis of evil. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 32(4), 525-537.

Pyszczynski, T., Motyl, M., Vail III, K. E., Hirschberger, G., Arndt, J., & Kesebir, P. (2012). Drawing attention to global climate change decreases support for war. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18(4), 354. DOI:10.1037/a0030328

Wolfe, S. E., & Tubi, A. (2019). Terror Management Theory and mortality awareness: A missing link in climate response studies?. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 10(2), e566. DOI:10.1002/wcc.566