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When Death is Good for Life: Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management

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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.
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Personality and Social Psychology
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DOI: 10.1177/1088868312440046
published online 5 April 2012Pers Soc Psychol Rev
Kenneth E. Vail III, Jacob Juhl, Jamie Arndt, Matthew Vess, Clay Routledge and Bastiaan T. Rutjens
When Death is Good for Life: Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management
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Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in
thy power, be good.
Marcus Aurelius (C. 169/1957, p. 20)
No matter how diligently we might try to avoid it, the inevi-
tability of death hangs over us all. In television shows, in
music lyrics, in news stories, or even a casual walk through
town, everyday life is replete with reminders that our lives
will undoubtedly end. As if this is not unsettling enough, ter-
ror management theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, &
Solomon, 1986) has elucidated how efforts to manage con-
cerns about the inevitability of death contribute to many of
the more unsavory forms of human behavior, ranging from
prejudice and aggression to support for war and terrorism
(see Greenberg, Solomon, & Arndt, 2008, for a review). It is
perhaps not surprising then, given the deleterious nature of
these outcomes, that efforts to manage concerns about death
can be viewed as fueling the dark underbelly of human social
functioning. Yet, in the current article we argue that viewing
the awareness of death in such negative terms may obscure
the more positive trajectories that it can elicit as well.
As illustrated by the literature of Tolstoy and Dickens, the
stoic philosophies of Epictetus and Seneca, Eastern and
Western meditation and prayer practices, and myriad other
phenomena, the management of death concerns can play a
key role in motivating people to stay true to their virtues, to
build loving relationships, and to grow in fulfilling ways.
Consistent with this view, emerging lines of research are
revealing that death awareness can be managed through
more noble, creative, or prosocial behaviors, and that terror
management efforts can contribute to personal growth and
enriching experiences. In the present article, we take a closer
look at the conceptual foundations of TMT and consider
some of the more positive, or optimal, trajectories that terror
management efforts can foster. For the most part, these tra-
jectories have been overshadowed by the deleterious conse-
quences frequently featured in the TMT literature. The
present analysis will thus provide a broad understanding of
how existential concerns can facilitate beneficial personal
and social outcomes.
440046PSRXXX10.1177/1088868312440046Vail
et al.Personality and Social Psychology Review
2012
1University of Missouri–Columbia, USA
2North Dakota State University, Fargo, USA
3Ohio University, Athens, USA
4University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
Corresponding author:
Kenneth E. Vail, III, Department of Psychological Sciences, McAlester Hall,
University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211, USA
Email: vail.kenneth@gmail.com
When Death is Good for Life:
Considering the Positive Trajectories
of Terror Management
Kenneth E. Vail, III1, Jacob Juhl2, Jamie Arndt1, Matthew Vess3,
Clay Routledge2, and Bastiaan T. Rutjens4
Abstract
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
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2 Personality and Social Psychology Review XX(X)
TMT and Research
Stemming from the works of Ernest Becker (1962, 1973)
and Otto Rank (1936/1950), TMT proposes that the aware-
ness of death is a critical motivating force in human behav-
ior. As human beings evolved, environmental demands led
to the development of cognitive abilities that afforded peo-
ple a heightened self-reflective awareness of themselves
within a symbolic universe. While these cognitive abilities
brought considerable adaptive benefits, such as long-term
planning and the anticipation of future outcomes, they also
rendered human beings aware of their mortality. TMT
posits that psychological systems have taken shape to help
manage our awareness of death and thereby control the
anxiety that might otherwise arise. The theory maintains
that people manage death awareness through a dual compo-
nent buffer system that consists of (a) sustaining faith in
cultural worldviews and (b) attaining self-esteem by living
up to the standards of value that those worldviews provide.
Cultural worldviews are socially constructed and validated
beliefs that provide people with an opportunity to become
part of something that is more enduring than their own
physical existence. Such cultures promise faithful and val-
ued members symbolic death transcendence through secular
(e.g., authoring a book, teaching a class, having children, or
some other legacy) and religious (e.g., heaven, afterlife)
means. The second component of the buffer system, self-
esteem, reflects perceptions of how well one lives up to the
standards outlined by the relevant worldview. Thus, TMT
holds that the awareness of mortality can be managed with
relative effectiveness to the extent that individuals can
maintain faith in a worldview and live up to the values it
prescribes.
A number of hypotheses have been generated to test dif-
ferent facets of TMT. In particular, three broad hypotheses
have inspired a considerable amount of work. The first is the
mortality salience hypothesis (Rosenblatt, Greenberg,
Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989), which posits that if
maintaining faith in cultural beliefs and self-esteem buffers
death concerns, then making mortality salient should moti-
vate people to uphold, defend, and adhere to their world-
views and strive for self-esteem. In line with this hypothesis,
numerous studies have shown that mortality salience (MS)
inductions (e.g., writing about one’s own mortality, being
primed with death-related imagery or words, passing a
funeral home, engaging in death-related health screenings),
compared with other threatening or aversive inductions (e.g.,
uncertainty, failure, public speaking, social exclusion, paral-
ysis, dental pain), engender a multitude of behaviors that
appear to be designed to uphold or defend values, bolster
faith in worldviews, or boost self-esteem (for a review, see
Greenberg, Solomon, & Arndt, 2008).1 As we will later dis-
cuss, considerable research indicates that nonconscious
awareness of death (in other words, accessible death-related
cognition that is outside of focal awareness) instigates these
defenses (for a review, see Hayes, Schimel, Arndt, &
Faucher, 2010).
A second hypothesis, the anxiety-buffer hypothesis, holds
that if a certain psychological construct functions to buffer
against death thoughts, then its presence will attenuate the
need for other psychological defenses when people are
reminded of death. For instance, following from the predic-
tion that self-esteem helps manage anxiety, mortality remind-
ers elicit defensive reactions among people with low
self-esteem but not among those with high self-esteem
(Harmon-Jones et al., 1997; Schmeichel et al., 2009). A
number of other constructs, such as secure relational attach-
ment and deep religious faith, can similarly mitigate the
effects of MS (e.g., Jonas & Fischer, 2006; Mikulincer,
Florian, & Hirschberger, 2003).
Finally, the death-thought accessibility hypothesis pro-
poses that if an element buffers against death awareness,
then undermining it will increase the accessibility of death-
related cognitions (see Hayes et al., 2010, for a review). This
hypothesis has been assessed with a variety of cultural and
self-esteem relevant beliefs pertaining to such domains as
nationalism, religion, and even sexuality. In one such study
(Schimel, Hayes, Williams, & Jahrig, 2007), Canadian par-
ticipants presented with a challenge to their nationalistic
beliefs subsequently evidenced increased accessibility of
death-related thought relative to those not confronted with a
worldview threat. Across five studies, Schimel et al. found
that worldview threat increased death-thought accessibility
independent of anger, anxiety, and negative thoughts. This
work highlights the critical role that solid faith in one’s cul-
tural worldviews and high self-esteem play in buffering the
awareness of mortality.
Traditional Focus of TMT:
The Dark Side
There is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inade-
quate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil
facts which it refuses positively to account for are a
genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be
the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the
only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.
William James, 1902, p. 160
Much of the empirical footing for TMT has followed the
general tenor of Becker’s theorizing across his books: from
The Birth and Death of Meaning (1962), to The Denial of
Death (1973), and Escape From Evil (1975). Building on his
initial premise that culture and self-esteem are key contribu-
tors to the successful management of death awareness,
Becker then sought to understand harmful and otherwise
deleterious social phenomena (e.g., prejudice). As such, ini-
tial TMT research largely followed this focus and examined
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Vail et al. 3
the degree to which people will harm themselves or others
to affirm the integrity of their cultural structures and accrue
self-esteem. This initial emphasis on negative outcomes
paralleled the conceptual foundation for the theory (i.e.,
Becker’s work) and fell in step with a general trend in the
field of social psychology to focus on understanding and
averting harmful human behavior. A consequence of such a
focus was that the early TMT research paradigms were
developed to explore the effects of MS on socially antago-
nistic forms of worldview defense (e.g., prejudice). When
subsequent research began to focus on understanding terror
management processes more deeply, researchers tended to
use the established worldview defense paradigms, even
though an interest in outcomes like prejudice, per se, was not
really the focus of that work. For example, when seeking to
understand the cognitive and psychodynamic processes
associated with conscious versus nonconscious death-related
cognition, researchers measured antagonistic forms of
worldview defense because they had already been estab-
lished as reliable outcomes for observing terror management
effects (e.g., Arndt, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon,
1997; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Simon, & Breus,
1994). This may have inadvertently contributed to, and
helped perpetuate, a continued focus on the more deleterious
forms of social behavior.
Thus, most TMT studies (and presentations of the the-
ory) have centered on how existential fears contribute to
evaluative biases, defensive distortions, and the aggressive
protection of one’s cultural beliefs and self-esteem. Studies
have indicated that MS increases derogation of—and sup-
port for the annihilation of—those who harbor different
beliefs and values (e.g., McGregor et al., 1998; Hayes,
Schimel, & Williams, 2008), amplifies greed and material-
ism (e.g., Cozzolino, Staples, Meyers, & Samboceti, 2004;
Kasser & Sheldon, 2000), and promotes racism and stereo-
typing (e.g., Schimel et al., 1999). Strikingly, MS can even
increase endorsement of worldview and self-esteem sup-
portive attitudes and behaviors that, ironically, pose signifi-
cant risks to one’s own physical health (e.g., risky driving,
Taubman Ben-Ari, Mikulincer, & Florian, 1999; faith-
based medical refusals, Vess, Arndt, Cox, Routledge, &
Goldenberg, 2009; self-sacrifice, Pyszczynski, et al., 2006;
Routledge & Arndt, 2008). These sorts of effects may have
contributed to a view that the awareness of death fosters
destructive outcomes.2
But as Sheldon and King (2001) suggested, it is not just
important to understand what harm can be wrought from the
dark sides of basic psychological processes but also to
improve our understanding of factors that may foster the best
in people, in spite of, in addition to, or alongside, factors that
might also engender the worst. Previous TMT research and
conceptual reviews have typically emphasized and eluci-
dated the more harmful terror management trajectories,
overlooking the ways in which terror management processes
can produce more beneficial outcomes. For a theory that pur-
ports to offer a broad view of the human existential condi-
tion, this is a noticeable gap. It is therefore important to
consider whether the motivational forces generated by terror
management processes are capable of producing any per-
sonal and/or social benefits beyond the effective manage-
ment of death awareness.
The Potential for Positive Terror
Management
Yoda: Strength flows from the Force. But beware of
the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side
of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join
you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path,
forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you
it will.
Luke Skywalker: Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
Luke: But how am I to know the good side from the
bad?
Lucas, Kurtz, and Kershner, 1980
A consideration of “positive” terror management first
introduces a somewhat thorny conceptual issue regarding
subjective evaluations of what is and what is not positive, or
optimal, terror management. How should one define “posi-
tive” forms of terror management? In discussing peoples’
struggle to deal with the inevitability of death, Becker
(1973) suggested that the key challenge is to identify strate-
gies for managing death awareness that pose the least harm
to the individual, as well as to both those inside and outside
one’s culture. Becker’s approach is also largely consistent
with recent work on the science of morality (Daleidin, 1998;
Harris, 2010), which emphasizes that “positive” actions and
attitudes are those that can be empirically demonstrated to
promote well-being in physical (e.g., being healthy), social
(e.g., discourage prejudice and violence and/or promote car-
ing and prosocial environments), and/or psychological (e.g.,
via creativity, open-mindedness, personal growth; see Deci
& Ryan, 2000; Runco, 2004) domains. The present analysis
builds on those ideas and defines “positive” terror manage-
ment outcomes as existentially motivated attitudes or behav-
iors that minimize harm to oneself and others, and promote
well-being in physical, social, and psychological domains.
In offering this definition, we note three important cave-
ats. For the first, terror management buffers are functional in
that they help reduce the potential to experience anxiety in
the face of death awareness (see Greenberg et al., 2003). The
absence of terror management buffers leaves people vulner-
able to the heightened accessibility of death-related thought,
which can lead to manifest anxiety and deficits in
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4 Personality and Social Psychology Review XX(X)
psychological well-being (Edmondson, Park, Chaudoir, &
Wortman, 2008; Routledge et al., 2010), and if not buffered
in some way, mortality concerns can similarly contribute to
anxiety disorders, depression, and impaired self-regulation
(e.g., Gailliot, Schmeichel, & Baumeister, 2006; Pyszczynski
& Kesebir, 2011; Routledge & Juhl, 2010; Simon, Arndt,
Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1998; Strachan et al.,
2007). Thus, our first caveat is that although the basic terror
management function appears to be designed to maintain
psychological equanimity, at least in the short term, all terror
management responses—whether considered positive or
negative—can be viewed as serving this basic function. The
current article therefore looks beyond the immediate func-
tional (and seemingly psychologically healthy) management
of death awareness to specifically consider the positive ways
in which that basic function can be served.
The second caveat is that any response—even seemingly
positive ones—may have the potential to engender negative
psychological repercussions, especially if abused or taken to
extremes. For example, while love can be considered a posi-
tive social response according to the above criteria, if it is
misdirected or is used as an unbalanced or sole basis for
meaning and value, it can create potentially harmful conse-
quences. Thus, we consider as positive responses those that
generally, although perhaps not always, have the potential to
foster physical health, the well-being of people inside and
outside one’s community, or facilitate individuals’ self-
enrichment and personal growth.3 The final caveat is simply
to acknowledge that, despite our efforts to define “positive”
in an objective manner, there will always be a degree of sub-
jectivity to any such classification.
A Heuristic Model of Optimal Terror
Management
The following pages will consider whether and how death
awareness can be a springboard for personally and socially
beneficial outcomes. To organize the conceptual factors under-
lying various positive terror management responses, we first
offer a preliminary heuristic model of positive terror manage-
ment (see Figure 1). We believe this model helps summarize
the extant literature regarding positive methods of terror man-
agement and highlights a number of underappreciated phe-
nomena. And, as we will note in the following sections, it also
reveals some underinvestigated topics and suggests promising
avenues for future research. Thus, the model provides both an
integrative and generative view of the potentially beneficial
impact of death thought on behaviors and attitudes.
The overarching framework of the model reflects the dis-
tinction between the effects of conscious and nonconscious
awareness of mortality specified by the dual-process model
of TMT (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999). From
this perspective, conscious thoughts of death trigger pseudo-
rational efforts to cope with one’s vulnerability to mortality
and thus push the topic out of focal awareness. Once death
thoughts move out of focal awareness, these pseudorational
management efforts are relaxed. However, although death-
related thought becomes nonconscious, it remains highly
accessible (e.g., a state of deep cognitive activation; Wegner
& Smart, 1997), triggering a second mode of processing that
entails the types of symbolic or culturally oriented reactions
described earlier (e.g., worldview defense, self-esteem striv-
ing). Thus, the upper portion of the model specifies poten-
tially positive effects of conscious death-thought activation
and the lower portion specifies the effects of nonconscious
but accessible death thought.
Focusing first on the upper portion, two branches of work
inform potentially constructive responses to conscious
death-related cognition. The branch on the left reflects
research, conducted within a health context, that generally
shows that conscious death thoughts activate pseudorational
coping efforts. On one hand, conscious death thought can
cause avoidant distortions of one’s potential health risk; but
on the other hand, when individuals perceive ways to actively
improve their health (or reduce their risk), conscious death
awareness can motivate deliberately healthy actions that
reduce the (perception of) risk and remove the direct con-
scious awareness of death. The branch on the right reflects
research that has also begun to reveal similar patterns involv-
ing goal strivings. The model integrates these findings to
suggest that conscious death awareness may trigger deliber-
ate evaluation and adjustment of one’s personal goals to best
cope with an inevitable death, whereby individuals avoid or
trivialize goals not perceived as relevant to coping with mor-
tality and may instead increase investment in goals perceived
as intrinsically meaningful and supportive.
The lower portion of the model reflects the vast majority
of TMT research, which has investigated the effects of non-
conscious death-thought activation and its implication for
self-related motivations. Given the focus of extant research,
the model identifies three broad sets of factors determining
whether positive terror management outcomes will emerge.
The first of these builds on research demonstrating that non-
conscious death awareness enhances efforts to accrue self-
esteem and uphold worldview beliefs and values. In this
light, terror management can inspire positive attitudes and
behaviors depending on the integration and salience of posi-
tive contingencies of self-worth and worldview beliefs.
Second, research demonstrating the terror management role
of close relationships and favorable group identifications
suggests that nonconscious accessibility of death thought
can enhance motivation to develop and maintain caring rela-
tionships, contribute to one’s community, and support peace-
ful intergroup cooperation. And finally, the model builds on
research involving cognitive flexibility to suggest that terror
management efforts can sometimes lead to enriching self-
and social-exploration among cognitively flexible—open-
minded or creative—individuals.
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Vail et al. 5
Thus, in the following pages, we use this model of posi-
tive terror management to guide a review of relevant litera-
ture, summarize factors determining positive terror
management trajectories, and suggest potential areas for
future research. After doing so, we then tentatively explore
whether and how more direct encounters with death might
lead individuals toward prosocial and growth-oriented goals
and personal strivings as the result of a mix of both con-
scious and nonconscious terror management processes.
The Impact of Conscious Thoughts
of Death
As mentioned earlier, a considerable amount of research has
indicated that consciously reflecting on one’s mortality
prompts efforts to move those thoughts out of direct con-
scious awareness through pseudorational efforts that mini-
mize, distort, or render less imminent the prospect of
mortality (Pyszczynski et al., 1999). That is, when being
consciously aware of death, people may make deliberate
evaluations of their attitudes and behaviors and, if perceiving
a way to better prevent or cope with death, adjust their behav-
ior and attitudes accordingly. Although this conscious evalu-
ative process is of course subject to other biases and
motivations that can influence logic (Kunda, 1990;
Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987)—hence the description of
the process as pseudorational—these coping efforts rely on
perceived logical connections between certain actions and
one’s ability to cope with death. Thus, we first examine how
the conscious mode of processing death thoughts can posi-
tively impact physical health and lead to more internally
meaningful goal strivings.
Enhancing Physical Health
Many health-relevant situations arouse conscious thoughts
of death. On one hand, in the absence of health-related cop-
ing options, or when such options are not perceived as via-
ble, people may manage conscious death thoughts by simply
suppressing them or denying their vulnerability to factors
that compromise physical health (i.e., disease; see
Goldenberg & Arndt, 2008, for review). On the other hand,
Figure 1. A preliminary, heuristic model of positive terror management.
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6 Personality and Social Psychology Review XX(X)
as Tolkien noted in The Hobbit, “It does not do to leave a
live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him”
(1937, p. 195). In this vein, taking steps to improve one’s
health directly helps stave off the cold grip of death and is
thus a straightforward way to cope with mortality thoughts.
An emerging body of research highlights the potential for
death thoughts to motivate healthy behaviors and attitudes,
depending on the availability of health-related coping
options and relevant individual differences. For instance,
when given the option to engage in a health-enhancing
behavior, conscious thoughts of death can spark greater fit-
ness and exercise intentions (Arndt, Schimel, & Goldenberg,
2003), reduce smoking intensity among smokers experienc-
ing low cravings (Arndt et al., 2011), and increase intentions
to use sunscreen (Routledge, Arndt, & Goldenberg, 2004).
Importantly, conscious death awareness tends to motivate
people to engage in these types of healthy behaviors espe-
cially when the behaviors are perceived as reducing the con-
nection between a particular health risk and death (Cooper,
Goldenberg, & Arndt, 2010). Conscious awareness of death
also increases health-screening intentions among people
higher in health optimism, adaptive coping, and response
efficacy perceptions (Arndt, Routledge, & Goldenberg,
2006; Cooper et al., 2010). Such effects presumably occur
because these people have a greater inclination to believe
their own actions can positively impact their health. In sum,
conscious thoughts of death can motivate efforts to reduce
one’s perceived vulnerabilities, potentially motivating
behaviors and attitudes that improve one’s physical health.
Goal Priorities
In addition to the impact on health strivings, conscious
thoughts of death may help to reprioritize people’s goal
strivings by serving as a “reality check” or an “awakening
experience” (Heidegger, 1926/1982; L. L. Martin, Campbell,
& Henry, 2004; Yalom, 1980). That is, consciously thinking
about death may make people more likely to deliberately
introspect about their life goals, reevaluating the status-
oriented goals often emphasized by the broader cultural
milieu and reconsidering goals that might be more inher-
ently supportive and meaningful.
In line with this perspective, one approach to studying
goals and personal strivings has focused on differentiating
goals concerned with meeting culturally imposed status-ori-
ented standards of worth (“extrinsically” oriented goals)
which in Western culture typically include wealth, fame, and
physical attractiveness, from goals concerned with the self-
directed pursuit of personal growth and insight, the cultiva-
tion of positive interpersonal relationships, and the betterment
of one’s community (“intrinsically” oriented goals; Kasser &
Ryan, 1993, 1996). In Western culture, these extrinsic goals
are often emphasized as the gold standard for value and self-
esteem. As a result, research has shown that the symbolic
cultural strivings aroused by the nonconscious awareness of
death generally motivate endorsement of extrinsically ori-
ented goals for culturally defined success (Heine, Harihara,
& Niiya, 2002; Sheldon & Kasser, 2008).
Whereas nonconscious death thoughts tend to motivate
individuals to deal with death symbolically by seeking self-
esteem through culturally prescribed (extrinsic) goals, con-
scious thoughts of death might motivate people to trivialize
these goals and help reorient people toward more intrinsi-
cally meaningful goals, as they make more deliberate con-
siderations about what might constitute worthwhile pursuits.
In two studies exploring this idea (Kosloff & Greenberg,
2009), participants responded to questions either about death
or pain, and then rated the importance of both intrinsic and
extrinsic life goals. Importantly, half the participants were
assigned to complete their goal ratings immediately after
MS, when death thoughts were still conscious, and the other
half completed them after a delay, when death thoughts were
no longer in conscious attention. When participants rated
their goals after a delay, the death reminder increased the
importance they placed on their extrinsic goals, such as
wealth and fame (replicating Sheldon & Kasser, 2008); but
when participants rated their goals immediately, MS led par-
ticipants to trivialize the extrinsically oriented goals.
Other methodological approaches to examining the pos-
sibility of existentially induced goal reprioritization have
revealed similar findings. For example, following the 1994
Northridge earthquake, survivors’ retrospective reports of
conscious thoughts about death during the quake predicted
greater relative importance placed on intrinsic goals, even
several months later (Lykins, Segerstrom, Averill, Evans, &
Kemeny, 2007, Study 1). And two 7-day longitudinal experi-
ments showed that, compared with control topics, daily con-
scious contemplations of mortality led individuals to express
greater importance placed on pursuing intrinsic goals
(Heflick, Goldenberg, Keroack, & Cooper, 2011; Lykins et
al., 2007, Study 3). Such shifts in goal orientations fit our
definition of “positive” terror management responses as it
enhances psychological well-being and can lead to greater
social cohesion (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
In sum, these findings offer preliminary evidence that
conscious death awareness can motivate people to deliber-
ately reprioritize their goal strivings. But exactly when and
how people’s conscious thoughts of death lead to increased
pursuit of intrinsic goals and personal growth remains
unclear. One possibility, illustrated in Figure 1, builds on
research demonstrating the connection between conscious
death thoughts and healthy behaviors. As we noted, the
potential for death thoughts to motivate physically healthy
behaviors and attitudes depends on the immediately avail-
able array of health-related coping options and individual
differences in perceived health efficacy. That is, when indi-
viduals perceive that they can effectively take steps to
improve their health, conscious death awareness motivates
them to take those steps. It may similarly be that conscious
thoughts of death can render culturally symbolic goals
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Vail et al. 7
seemingly trivial and may motivate efforts toward personal
growth and intrinsic goal pursuits among individuals who
come to perceive such efforts as effective ways to restore or
improve their psychological health or enrich their sense of
meaning in life.
The Impact of Nonconscious
Thoughts of Death
Of course, even when perceived vulnerabilities to death are
reduced, the fact that one will ultimately die is no less real.
Once conscious terror management processes have removed
death-related thought from focal attention, it becomes non-
conscious but remains cognitively accessible. Thus, death
concerns remain “under the surface,” staying outside the
purview of deliberate evaluation and instead prompting a
host of symbolic defenses designed to effectively manage
the nonconscious reverberations of death-relevant thought.
The lion’s share of TMT research has been devoted to under-
standing this second (nonconscious) mode of response. As
illustrated in the bottom portion of Figure 1, this work can
be organized into several broad categories. We turn our
attention to each in turn, first considering the impact of ter-
ror management efforts when individuals have incorporated
positive contingencies of self-worth, and when positive
worldview beliefs and values are particularly dominant or
salient. Then we consider the effect of existential motivation
on the opportunity to develop and maintain caring interper-
sonal relationships and cooperative intergroup interactions.
And finally, we explore the influence of cognitive flexibility
on existentially motivated creativity, exploration of novelty,
and open-mindedness.
Standards of Worth
One of the hallmarks of TMT research is that the noncon-
scious accessibility of mortality-related cognitions moti-
vates efforts to obtain self-esteem by living up to internalized
cultural standards of value. As such, a crucial factor deter-
mining the outcomes of these terror management processes
is the constellation of beliefs and values that set the criteria
for self-esteem striving (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001). It is when
particular standards of self-worth are dominant or accessible
that we begin to see the potential for positive effects of non-
conscious death thoughts. To be sure, certain standards can
promote the deleterious outcomes that often characterize
terror management processes; but, when those standards
instead promote behaviors that enhance personal and soci-
etal well-being, mortality concerns have the capacity to push
people along more positive trajectories.
Health-related standards of worth. In contrast to the effect
of conscious death thoughts, the nonconscious accessibility
of death-related cognitions generally promote terror man-
agement processes that are less focused on effectively pro-
moting one’s health and more focused on effectively
accruing self-esteem and social acceptance (Arndt & Gold-
enberg, in press). A number of studies have shown that such
esteem contingencies can, at times, lead people toward
unhealthy behavior. For example, death primes have
increased risky driving for people who derive self-esteem
from their driving abilities (Taubman Ben-Ari, 2000) and
increased the desire to suntan for people who derive self-
esteem from being attractive and having tanned skin or
when the attractiveness and cultural appeal of tanned skin
was primed (Routledge, Arndt, & Goldenberg, 2004).
Importantly, however, this connection to self-esteem also
implies that when maintaining good health is incorporated
into one’s contingencies of self-worth, heightened existen-
tial concerns can motivate health-related behaviors. For
instance, death reminders boosted exercise intentions among
people who based their self-esteem on exercise (but not
those without this self-worth contingency; Arndt et al.,
2003) and increased the relevance of exercising to one’s
sense of self-worth after exposure to a positive exemplar of
exercise (Arndt et al., 2009).
Self-esteem striving as a means of mitigating accessible
death-related thought also plays an important role in facili-
tating healthy behaviors in cancer-related domains. For
instance, despite awareness of its unhealthy consequences,
many social smokers may continue to smoke cigarettes if
they perceive smoking as promoting a “cool” image and
increasing social acceptance (Leary, Tchividijian, &
Kraxberger, 1994). However, when smoking was portrayed
as “uncool,” death reminders boosted intentions to quit
among those who smoked to maintain a favorable social
image (Arndt et al., 2009; see also I. M. Martin & Kamins,
2010). Similarly, Cox et al. (2009) found that tanning behav-
iors varied as a function of MS and the experimental framing
of image-related contingencies of value and social accep-
tance. When college women were primed with the message
that “bronze is beautiful,” MS increased tanning intentions;
however, when primed with “pale is pretty,” MS reduced
tanning intentions. An additional field experiment on a south
Florida beach demonstrated that MS boosted women’s pref-
erences for a higher SPF sunscreen when the association
between pale skin and attractiveness was highlighted.
Cooper, Goldenberg, and Arndt (2011) similarly found that
death reminders increased intentions to perform breast self-
exams when women were exposed to information that linked
the behavior to self-empowerment. Together, these findings
suggest that terror management strivings can promote
healthy behaviors and decisions when the dominant or salient
value contingencies are directed toward positive health out-
comes. To the extent that certain contingencies are mallea-
ble, these results implicate death reminders as a potentially
effective compliment to image- and esteem-based health
interventions (e.g., Jackson & Aiken, 2006).
Proenvironmental standards of worth. Buffering existential
concerns by adhering to contingencies of self-worth also has
the potential to yield constructive consequences outside the
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8 Personality and Social Psychology Review XX(X)
health domain. For example, people’s contingencies of self-
worth can affect environmental concern (Brook, 2005), an
issue of prominent importance given the impending degrada-
tion of our planet’s natural resources. As the foregoing anal-
ysis suggests, environmentally relevant contingencies may
be especially potent when an individual is faced with manag-
ing death-related concerns. In the absence of such contin-
gencies, Kasser and Sheldon (2000) showed that when
participants imagined themselves owning a profit-seeking
timber harvesting company, death reminders boosted wealth-
oriented greed and intentions to harvest a greater percentage
of limited forestland. This finding coincides with similar
lines of research suggesting that self-esteem is often based
on financial success, as well as research suggesting that the
human–nature connection is a psychological obstacle in part
because our interface with nature is riddled with reminders
of our corporeality and of the savage reality of the natural
world (e.g., Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solo-
mon, 2000; Koole & Van den Berg, 2004).
However, with the rising prominence of “green” environ-
mental campaigns, many people are deriving a part of their
identity from, and basing their self-esteem on, being an envi-
ronmentally conscientious person, and research suggests that
adhering to such environmental contingencies of self-worth
can help manage death concerns (Vess & Arndt, 2008).
Although MS decreased environmental concern for those
who did not derive self-esteem through environmental
action, it increased environmental concern among those who
drew their self-esteem from environmental action. Similarly,
Fritsche, Jonas, Kayser, and Koranyi (2010) showed that
when proenvironmental norms were made salient, MS
increased sustainable behaviors. These findings suggest that,
like contingencies of self-worth predicated on health promo-
tion, when environmentalism is integrated into one’s domi-
nant contingencies of self-worth, mortality awareness may
trigger efforts to take better care of the environment and pro-
mote the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.
Norms, Values, and Facets of Belief
Just as death-concerns heighten adherence to internalized
standards of worth, it can also increase adherence to salient
cultural values and norms. This is because, as reviewed
above, cultural worldviews prescribe beliefs and values that
dictate criteria for self-worth and provide an enduring, struc-
tured, and meaningful conception of reality. The norms and
values of one’s culture therefore play a critical role when
managing existential fear. When death-related thought is
accessible, people become especially likely to abide by and
uphold the salient or dominant norms and values dictated by
their cultural worldview (e.g., Gailliot, Sillman, Schmeichel,
Maner, & Plant, 2008; Jonas et al., 2008). Although many
forms of worldview defense can have socially detrimental
consequences (e.g., out-group derogation, stereotyping),
other worldview beliefs incorporate prosocial values, such
as those that promote helping, equality, compassion, and
empathy. So, to the extent that such prosocial values are
salient or dominant facets of one’s belief system, terror man-
agement processes will motivate efforts to adhere to these
constructive tenets. In support of this hypothesis, several
studies have revealed that reminders of death can increase
prosocial attitudes and behaviors. These outcomes are con-
sistent with our conceptualization of a positive terror man-
agement response because they can potentially prevent harm
and promote social harmony.
Tolerance and egalitarianism. Greenberg, Simon, Pyszc-
zynski, Solomon, and Chatel (1992) posited that, because
tolerance is a more dominant value among liberals than
among conservatives, liberals should direct their terror man-
agement efforts away from derogatory or prejudicial world-
view defense. Indeed, whereas American conservatives
derogated a politically dissimilar person after MS, liberals
did not (Study 1). But although tolerance may be a particu-
larly dominant value for some (e.g., liberals), it is likely that
most Americans value tolerance to some extent. Therefore,
when tolerance is made salient, it should similarly guide ter-
ror management processes. Accordingly, a second study
found that priming the value of tolerance reduced derogatory
worldview defenses that were otherwise observed after MS.
A similar study showed that making the value of tolerance
salient eliminated the effects of MS on increased negative
attitudes toward Muslims (Vail, Rampy, Arndt, Pope, &
Pinel, 2011).4 But this process does not just reduce harmful
behaviors and attitudes, it can also promote positive behav-
iors. For example, when participants were reminded of the
value of egalitarianism, MS increased positive attitudes
toward Blacks among non-Black participants (Gailliot et al.,
2008). Thus, when tolerance and egalitarianism are particu-
larly accessible, terror management processes appear to
direct individuals to uphold these values. This results in less
derogatory, punitive, and prejudicial attitudes, as well as
more positive interracial attitudes.
Empathy and forgiveness. Additional work has investigated
the ways that prosocial values, such as empathy and forgive-
ness, can guide the management of death concerns in posi-
tive directions. Empathic experiences are characterized by
prosocial values and emotions such as compassion, sympa-
thy, and the expression of emotional sensitivity to the
thoughts and feelings of others (Batson, Ahmad, & Lishner,
2009). These values and emotions among empathic individu-
als set the stage for the expression of kindness and forgive-
ness as a means of managing the awareness of mortality.
Schimel, Wohl, and Williams (2006) investigated the role of
empathy as a terror management strategy by having home-
team-allegiant hockey fans complete a measure of empathy,
and then reminding them of death or a control topic. Next,
they had participants read about a player who engaged in
instrumental aggression during a game. Half the participants
were told that the aggression was committed by an opposing-
team player, whereas the other half were told that it was
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Vail et al. 9
committed by a home-team player. Participants then rated
their forgiveness of the player. Whereas MS always led to the
forgiveness of the home-team player, it also led to greater
forgiveness of the opposing-team player among more
empathic fans, presumably because MS motivated them to
uphold their empathic values. These findings shed light on
some of the dynamic ways that terror management efforts
can shape the forgiveness process, a process that can pro-
mote physical health (Wilson, Milosevic, Carroll, Hart, &
Hibbard, 2008) and peaceful coexistence with others
(Gobodo-Madikizela, 2002; Toussaint, Peddle, Cheadle,
Sellu, & Luskin, 2010).
Helping. In a similar vein, death awareness can foster
efforts to adhere to the cultural values and norms of helping.
For instance, one field experiment demonstrated the impact
of naturally occurring reminders of mortality on helping
behaviors (Gailliot et al., 2008, Study 3). A confederate, talk-
ing on a cell phone, audibly discussed the value of helping or
a control topic within earshot of naive participants who were
either passing through a cemetery or were one block away,
out of sight of the cemetery. As participants continued walk-
ing, they were presented with an opportunity to help a sec-
ond confederate who dropped a notebook while struggling
with her backpack. Among those reminded of helping, the
number of participants who helped was 40% greater at the
cemetery than a block away from the cemetery. This finding
suggests that the heightened awareness of death motivated
participants to uphold the value of helping when it was
salient. Gailliot and colleagues (2008) replicated this finding
in two additional field experiments, using several operation-
alizations of MS, helping values, and helping behaviors
(e.g., feeding the homeless, donating to ill children, assisting
the disabled). Jonas et al. (2008, Study 4) also found that MS
increased helping behavior when participants were reminded
of helping norms.
Compassion and peace. The extent to which compassionate
values guide terror management efforts has also been
explored. In one study (Vail, Arndt, Motyl, & Pyszczynski,
2009), participants in an MS or control condition were
reminded of compassionate or neutral values and then asked
to indicate which candidate they intended to vote for in the
upcoming presidential election, John McCain or Barack
Obama. When participants were reminded of neutral values,
MS boosted support for Republican candidate John McCain,
possibly because he emphasized American exceptionalism
and advocated aggressive defense of the American world-
view. Importantly however, preelection polls had shown that
the majority of voters perceived Democratic candidate Barack
Obama as the more compassionate candidate (e.g., Stein-
hauser, 2008). Thus, when participants were reminded of
compassionate values, MS motivated increased support for
Barack Obama. We hasten to note that we are not suggesting
that voting for Barack Obama instead of voting for John
McCain meets our definition as a positive or prosocial out-
come. Rather, we include this finding because it highlights a
way that terror management processes can motivate behav-
iors driven by the intention to care for others by upholding
compassionate values. In other contexts, when compassion-
ate values are salient, MS may shift personal preferences
toward other behaviors similarly perceived as representing
compassionate and caring values.
In a related vein, Jonas et al. (2008) found that when indi-
viduals were reminded of a pacifistic norm, MS increased
pacifistic attitudes. Although compassionate voting prefer-
ences and pacifistic attitudes have important implications for
peaceful domestic and foreign policies, the point we wish to
emphasize is not the political implications of these responses,
but rather the malleability of terror management efforts
according to salient values of compassion and pacifism.
Further work has shown that MS can encourage prosocial
values among people who typically put their own well-being
ahead of others’ (“proselfs”; Joireman & Duell, 2005; see
Schwartz, 1992). Elsewhere, nonexperimental evidence has
shown similar effects in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks,
which has been directly linked to elevated levels of death-
related cognition (see Landau, Solomon, et al., 2004). After
9/11, widespread and lasting increases were observed for
values such as gratitude, hope/optimism, love/intimacy kind-
ness, leadership, and teamwork (Peterson & Seligman,
2003). It seems possible that the increases in each of these
values were, at least in part, due to efforts to manage death
thoughts made accessible by the terrorist attacks.
Religious compassion and the boundaries of belief. The val-
ues prescribed by religious beliefs can also provide a power-
ful means to manage the reality of human mortality. Religious
beliefs inform nearly every aspect of life and guide many
people’s behaviors (Becker, 1973; Vail et al, 2010). Cer-
tainly, components of religious belief can lead to harmful
terror management strategies, such as intolerance, prejudice,
and aggression (e.g., Bushman, Ridge, Das, Key, & Busath,
2007; Greenberg, et al., 1990) or support for health-compro-
mising faith-based medical refusals (e.g., Vess, Routledge,
Landau, & Arndt, 2009). Furthermore, maintaining a rigid
investment in religious beliefs, such as that of religious fun-
damentalists, has been strongly associated with negative
social outcomes such as prejudice (e.g., Laythe, Finkel, &
Kirkpatrick, 2001), ethnocentrism (Altemeyer, 2003), and
militarism (e.g., Henderson-King, Henderson-King, Bolea,
Koches, & Kauffman, 2004).
However, some facets of religious faith center on prosocial
values such as compassion, empathy, altruism, forgiveness,
hope, humility, and love. Thus, religious fundamentalists
might sometimes manage death concerns by living up to
aspects of their religious faith that have constructive outcomes.
Rothschild, Abdollahi, and Pyszczynski (2009) explored this
issue by testing the hypothesis that fundamentalists should
uphold and defend salient compassionate values when explic-
itly couched as worldview consistent (i.e., religious). In sev-
eral studies, people high in fundamentalism were more
militaristic following mortality reminders; however, when
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10 Personality and Social Psychology Review XX(X)
they were reminded of compassionate religious values, mor-
tality reminders decreased militaristic attitudes. These latter
effects held for American Christian fundamentalists and
Iranian Shiite Muslims (Rothschild et al., 2009).
One important caveat to this, however, is that these more
positive trajectories are only possible when the values that
elicit them are incorporated into one’s worldview. This
means that the existential motivation to live up to a certain
value, such as compassion, can be influenced by that value’s
portrayal as applicable to one’s worldview. Indeed,
Rothschild et al. (2009) found that individuals high in reli-
gious fundamentalism became more compassionate follow-
ing mortality reminders only when compassionate values
were portrayed in a religious context (i.e., Bible or Koran);
priming compassionate values in nonreligious contexts had
no impact. Thus, these findings illustrate how the potential
for positive terror management processes may be determined
by the degree to which individuals view such healthy or pro-
social values as particularly relevant to their worldview.
Taken together, the findings reviewed in this section sug-
gest that terror management efforts can facilitate attitudes
and behaviors with positive social impact, especially when
certain worldview-relevant values or norms are salient.
Certainly there are times when compassion or proself values,
for instance, will be more or less beneficial for individuals
and/or society. The emphasis here is that the motivation to
manage awareness of death can foster inclinations that are
quite different from the malevolent in-group biases with
which TMT is so often associated. Instead, terror manage-
ment efforts guided by prosocial, compassionate, or tolerant
values can confer outcomes that promote physical and social
well-being.
Relationships and Social Bonds
Beginning at birth, the human infant finds itself dependent
on the people around it for nearly every aspect of its contin-
ued existence, and these early child–caregiver bonds come
to function as symbolic sources of security that shelter the
individual from anxiety (e.g., Becker, 1962; Bowlby, 1969).
These attachments to early caregivers become a proxy for
existential safety well into adulthood, protecting individu-
als from existential anxieties and promoting feelings of
self-worth (Cox et al., 2008). As the individual’s social
sphere grows, however, additional interpersonal relation-
ships beyond those with the primary caregiver become
important for people’s efforts to deal with existential fears
(Mikulincer et al., 2003). Indeed, when reminded of death,
secure attachments to others reduce defensiveness and
facilitate social interaction (e.g., Hart, Shaver, & Goldenberg,
2005; Mikulincer & Florian, 2000; Taubman Ben-Ari,
Findler, & Mikulincer, 2002; Weise et al., 2008). Thus,
people’s social relationships with others play an important
role in maintaining a sense of existential security. And
although not all relationship patterns are necessarily
healthy (e.g., continually forgiving an abusive romantic
partner or the emotional consequences of rejection or unre-
quited love), in the following, we consider some general
ways in which terror management processes can enhance
people’s efforts to develop and maintain positive social
relationships on the interpersonal, community, and inter-
group levels.
Love and romance. Loving and romantic relationships
serve multiple psychological functions, including soothing
interpersonal connection and self-esteem through positive
relational regard (Leary & Baumeister, 2000; Murray,
Holmes, & Griffin, 2000). As such, death awareness may
contribute to the development of, and commitment to, lov-
ing, romantic relationships. Supporting this hypothesis,
death thought motivates greater commitment to romantic
relationships (Florian, Mikulincer, & Hirschberger, 2002;
Blankmeyer, Hackathorn, Bequette, & Clark, 2011), more
positive endorsements of romantic and selfless relationship
partners and love styles (Mikulincer, Florian, & Hirsch-
berger, 2004), and greater strivings for romantic intimacy
(Hirschberger, Florian, & Mikulincer, 2003). In addition,
contemplating separation from an important relationship
partner leads to increased death-related thought (Mikulincer,
Florian, Birnbaum, & Malishkevich, 2002). Cox and Arndt
(in press) have also shown that MS is especially likely to
lead to increased relationship commitment when one’s rela-
tionship partners are a source of positive regard. There are of
course important questions about such effects. Which indi-
viduals are most likely to turn to relationships, and to which
relationships in particular do they turn? While utilizing close
others as a means of managing existential fear may be most
likely for those with secure relational attachment (e.g., Hart,
Shaver, & Goldenberg, 2005; Mikulincer & Florian, 2000;
Taubman Ben-Ari et al., 2002; Weise et al., 2008), there are
also indications that attachment styles can predict the pre-
ferred source of relational closeness (e.g., securely attached
persons prefer romantic partners whereas insecurely attached
person prefer their parents; Cox et al., 2008).
In addition to the influence of death awareness on com-
mitment to loving relationships and romantic intimacy with
one’s partner, existential concerns also affect inclinations
toward physical intimacy. The reality of sexuality exposes
some naked truths about humankind—that, like all animals,
we are bleeding, pulsating, secreting, and ultimately corpo-
real subjects of nature. As such, physical aspects of sex can
quickly become a psychological minefield precisely because
the nature of sexual intimacy can carry stubborn intimations
of our creatureliness (Goldenberg, 2005; Goldenberg,
Pyszczynski, McCoy, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999). MS
can increase aversion to raw physical sensation and close
physical contact (Goldenberg et al., 2001; Goldenberg et al.,
2006) and lead to the objectification and derogation of
highly sexualized women (Goldenberg & Roberts, 2004;
Landau et al., 2006). Imbuing sexuality with emotions such
as love and romance, however, serves a terror management
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Vail et al. 11
function by recasting the natural, physical realities of sex
with the elegant appeal of “uniquely human” intimacy
(Goldenberg et al., 1999, Goldenberg, Cox, Pyszczynski,
Greenberg, & Solomon, 2002). Thus, close physical rela-
tionships, which might otherwise be viewed in terms of
their biological functionality, can be transformed into the
uniquely human hallmark of romance. Existential concerns
can therefore motivate people to cultivate uniquely human
emotional concepts, such as love and romance, in the con-
text of intimate relationships.
Marriage and families. As committed, loving, and romanti-
cally intimate relationships grow into families and/or mar-
riages, terror management processes may also impact these
institutions in important ways. For example, the 1995 Okla-
homa City bombing, which presumably made salient exis-
tential fears of death, have been associated with reductions in
divorce rates in the surrounding counties following the
attack, suggesting that death awareness can encourage stron-
ger commitment to marriage (Nakonezny, Reddick, & Rodg-
ers, 2004).
Lifton (1979) also argued that having and raising children
can serve a crucial path to symbolic immortality, whereby an
individual can feel that aspects of the self will “live on”
through one’s progeny. Several studies support this notion,
finding that reminders of mortality boost inclinations to have
children (Fritsche et al., 2007; Wisman & Goldenberg, 2005;
Zhou, Liu, Chen, & Yu, 2008). These processes appear to
both strengthen commitment to marriage and feed the urge to
start and care for a family. In sum, existential motivation may
be an important factor in strengthening marital ties and rais-
ing families. There may, of course, be a number of motiva-
tional goals involved in these and related effects. For example,
recent findings suggest that death awareness enhances the
role of self-esteem concerns in short-term romantic relation-
ship preferences, whereas death awareness enhances con-
cerns with worldview validation in long-term relationship
preferences (Kosloff, Greenberg, Sullivan, & Weise, 2010).
Fostering positive community involvement. On a broader level,
death-related cognition may also promote a positive sense of
community. Much research has demonstrated that MS moti-
vates individuals to uphold and support fellow members of
their social groups, and protect and advance their cultural pre-
eminence (see Greenberg et al., 2008). But TMT holds that
concerns about mortality do not simply lead people to affili-
ate with any and every social group; they must maintain a
foothold in a worldview that they perceive as both inherently
true and as offering platforms for positive self-evaluation.
The self-evaluative implication of one’s social and cultural
affiliations plays an important role in people’s community
memberships and allegiances. MS often motivates greater
identification with social groups and communities that offer
positive self-reflections and moves people to distance them-
selves from social groups that might reflect poorly on them-
selves (Arndt, Greenberg, Schimel, Pyszczynski, & Solomon,
2002; Dechesne, Janssen, & van Knippenberg, 2000).
This aspect of TMT helps to explain how and why people
affiliate with what they view are “good” groups and avoid
associating with what they view as “bad” groups. To be sure,
popular perception of various groups as generally good or
bad has varied across history, regions, and communities. On
the more deleterious end, some people sometimes maintain
invested membership in groups that negatively impact
minorities, women, education, labor conditions, and so on, in
part because those groups are construed as offering a solid
platform for positive self-reflection. However, our point here
is that this process is also found on the other side of the coin;
it can foster support and investment in groups that perform
beneficial social roles. For example, some people may
become involved in groups providing services to youth,
women and the elderly, and charities promoting learning and
health, provided that such organizations are viewed as plat-
forms for positive self-reflection.
In addition, at the community level, existential concerns
can bolster the perception of entitativity—the perception that
one’s community is definitive and real—and favor for one’s
fellow group members (Castano, Yzerbyt, Paladino, &
Sacchi, 2002; Pyszczynski et al., 1996). Perceiving such
communal entities can exert a constructive influence through
the committed improvement efforts among those who iden-
tify with the community or group. For instance, entitativity
and cohesiveness might help facilitate community growth
through the construction and maintenance of beneficial
social institutions such as local governments, charitable
organizations, and education systems, among others. Indeed,
MS can increase charitable donations, especially for one’s
own community (Hirschberger, Ein-Dor, & Almakias, 2008;
Jonas, Schimel, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2002). Terror
management processes may therefore be an important factor
in the development of, and contribution to, helpful commu-
nity groups and organizations.
Peaceful coexistence. Although an enhanced sense of com-
munity might be beneficial for oneself and fellow members,
the boundaries of one’s perceived group plays a crucial role
in the treatment of potential out-group members. With
respect to group entitativity, Becker (1973, 1975) echoes
many others (e.g., Allport, 1954) in noting that love for one’s
in-group often brings with it a need to protect the in-group
from outside groups or enemies (e.g., prejudice, scapegoat-
ing, war). When MS leads to stronger connections to the in-
group, it may also entail less liking of out-group members.
This may in fact be more of a default reaction to existential
concerns as the existence of groups with alternative belief
systems compromises faith in the “correctness” of one’s own
(Berger & Luckmann, 1967). Accordingly, TMT research
has revealed that caustic intergroup hostilities often arise in
response to MS (e.g., Pyszczynski et al., 2006; see Pyszc-
zynski, Rothschild, & Abdollahi, 2008). However, much less
attention has been given to the idea that, under some condi-
tions, mortality concerns can be managed in ways that reduce
discrimination and war, and promote peaceful coexistence.
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12 Personality and Social Psychology Review XX(X)
Emerging research suggests that expanding the perceived
boundaries of one’s groups to include members of other
communities might direct terror management processes
according to more inclusive, cooperative, and peaceful
mentalities.
One key component, according to the contact hypothesis,
is establishing positive personal connections across group
boundaries (Allport, 1954). Allport suggested that close inter-
actions with diverse groups of people can encourage the
widening of subjective group boundaries to the ultimate in-
group—humanity—leading to the elimination of intergroup
prejudice. Research supporting this hypothesis led to the
development of the common in-group identity model
(Gaertner, Dovidio, Anastasio, Bachman, & Rust, 1993),
which posits that recategorizing multiple groups into a single
superordinate group can reduce subgroup hostilities. As such,
Motyl et al. (2011) hypothesized that death awareness might
motivate inclusive attitudes toward out-group members if a
personal connection with members of diverse outgroups were
first established, thereby blurring group boundaries with a
superordinate sense of “common humanity.”
For example, in one study, Americans were either
reminded of death or a control topic and then read vignettes
about favorite childhood experiences, such as playing at the
beach or going camping, and were asked to recall their own
similar childhood experiences. In one condition, these
vignettes were ostensibly authored by Americans (e.g.,
Michael, from Orlando), but in another condition they were
ostensibly authored by a diverse range of people from around
the world (e.g., Miguel, from Cuernavaca). Across this and
two additional studies, American participants primed with a
sense of a multicultural “common humanity” became more
tolerant of immigrants, more accepting of Arabs, and more
supportive of international peace-building after being
reminded of death. These findings suggest that blurring
group boundaries with a sense of common humanity can
direct terror management efforts toward inclusive and proso-
cial treatment of out-group members.
In addition, superordinate groups might also be formed
on the basis of an overarching threat. Classic experiments
like Sherif’s (1966; Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif,
1961) Robber’s Cave studies have illustrated the ways in
which group conflict can be eliminated in response to a
superordinate threat. When facing such overarching threats,
terror management efforts similarly direct people toward
peaceful coexistence with otherwise threatening groups. In
this vein, Pyszczynski, Motyl, et al., (2011) reasoned that
because the onset of climate change (e.g., global warming) is
overwhelmingly viewed as a worldwide problem, thinking
about the universal threat of climate change should help fos-
ter a sense of “common humanity” and thus direct terror
management efforts toward cooperative and peaceful atti-
tudes. In one study, MS increased Americans’ militaristic
attitudes toward Iran when participants had first imagined a
localized catastrophe (thus replicating previous findings).
However, it did not lead to increased militarism when par-
ticipants were first reminded of the broad impact of global
warming. A second study found that among Americans who
first imagined the impacts of global warming (instead of a
localized catastrophe), MS increased support for interna-
tional peacemaking efforts. A third study, conducted among
Arab citizens of Israel during the January 2009 Israeli inva-
sion of Gaza, found that reminders of death motivated greater
support for peaceful coexistence with Israeli Jews among
those who imagined global warming and had high percep-
tions of common humanity; and a fourth study replicated this
effect among Israeli Jews. Taken together, these studies dem-
onstrate that when circumstances create common groups,
terror management efforts can guide people to become more
inclusive, cooperative, and peaceful.
Cognitively Flexible Orientations to the World
Considerable work shows that people often take refuge from
their existential concerns by tucking themselves comfort-
ably into the protective folds of their social relationships,
investing more heavily within their own cultural belief sys-
tems and shying away from alternatives (Greenberg et al.,
2008, for review). At first blush, this would seem to imply
that the awareness of death prevents people from straying
too far away from their extant worldviews and from consid-
ering or trying new things. While this may often be the case,
and is perhaps even the “default” response given the inher-
ent threat to faith in one’s own beliefs posed by the existence
of alternative beliefs (Berger & Luckmann, 1967), recent
studies demonstrate that terror management processes are
capable of enhancing efforts to innovate, create, and other-
wise boldly strike out from the familiarity of one’s own
group or beliefs in search of enriching new information or
experiences. Indeed, when reflecting on his own such inno-
vative efforts, Leonardo Da Vinci (1478-1519) even once
observed, “While I thought that I was learning how to live,
I have been learning how to die.”
Facilitating creative expression. Marked by originality and
novelty, creativity is frequently considered a beneficial activ-
ity that contributes to personal growth and insight as well as
social and technological improvement (Amabile, 1996; Deci
& Ryan, 1987; Hennessy & Amabile, 2010). However, cre-
ativity frequently entails an expressive divergence from
precedent and a deviation from norms (Barron, 1968; Hen-
nessy & Amabile, 2010; Simonton, 2009), which results in
feelings of being symbolically set apart from familiar peo-
ple, beliefs, or methods. Overindividuation can thus leave a
person with the feeling of being alone and existentially iso-
lated (Yalom, 1980). In this light, the individuating charac-
teristics of creativity might undermine the existential security
of one’s social ties (Becker, 1973; Rank, 1932/1989). So,
how might potentially individuating acts, such as creativity
and the exploration of novelty, fit into the existential
experience?
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Vail et al. 13
One answer is that people are strongly motivated to
simultaneously maintain their individuality and their social
and cultural connections (Becker, 1973; Brewer, 1991;
Maslow, 1968; Rank, 1932/1989; Tillich, 1952/1971; Yalom,
1980). Building from Rank, Becker (1973) noted that the
awareness of death initiates dual motives to define oneself as
a unique individual, yet also similar enough to others to be
safely protected by one’s cultural ties. Research has sup-
ported these ideas. For instance, when participants were
made to feel deviant, reminders of death increased their per-
ceptions that they were similar to those around them; how-
ever, when participants were made to feel like conformists,
MS reduced these similarity ratings (Simon et al., 1997).
Creative expression may similarly individuate people
from familiar people or beliefs, upsetting the balance
between the need to remain safely tucked into one’s cultural
fold and to boldly carve out one’s own unique self-identity.
When people are faced with managing thoughts of death,
creativity can lead to an uncomfortable sense of guilt, given
that one’s own creative individuation undermines one’s
socially derived existential security (Rank, 1932/1989).
Several studies have supported this idea, showing that engag-
ing in a creative task after MS increased guilt as well as par-
ticipants’ (presumably compensatory) projection of social
similarity (Arndt et al., 1999).
As one might expect from a dual-motive perspective,
however, such effects can be attenuated if the individual has
a sense of social connectedness (Arndt, Routledge,
Greenberg, & Sheldon, 2005), which in turn, opens the door
to the possibility of extracting existential benefits from cre-
ative expression or mind-sets. For example, just as death
thoughts have thus far been shown to induce efforts to
enhance social connections following an individuating act of
creativity, it seems likely that thoughts of death might facili-
tate socially oriented acts of creativity, paving the way for
exploration and innovation of culturally and socially ori-
ented themes (e.g., Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon,
1995; Maslow, 1943; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Goldenberg,
2003). In line with this possibility, Routledge, Arndt, Vess,
and Sheldon (2008) demonstrated that although death
reminders undermined individual-oriented creativity, this
did not happen to creativity that was directed toward the ben-
efit of the community.
Creativity and the exploration of novelty. Closely tied to
socially oriented creative expression, terror management
efforts can also, under certain circumstances, lead to the
exploration of novelty. The existentially induced need to
seek social affiliation may broaden the range of acceptable
sources of affiliation (Wisman & Koole, 2003) and, when
combined with individuating creative orientations, motivate
the exploration of previously unfamiliar social or cultural
instantiations. Engaging in a creative task not only makes
people less defensive of their cultural worldview when
reminded of death but also boosts interest in exploring cul-
turally novel information (Routledge & Arndt, 2009;
Routledge, Arndt, & Sheldon, 2004). Specifically, when in a
creative mind-set, MS enhanced social, intellectual, and
environmental exploration, as well as the exploration of
alternative secular and religious cultural worldviews. These
findings point to the role of creative mind-sets in the facilita-
tion of open-minded and flexible terror management
processes.
Flexible cognitive structure. Another approach to under-
standing the role of cognitive flexibility has been to exam-
ine how individual differences in personal need for structure
(PNS; Neuberg and Newsom, 1993; Thompson, Naccarato,
Parker, & Moskowitz, 2001) moderate the nature of terror
management processes. People higher in PNS prefer that
their social surroundings be rigidly structured, familiar, and
certain. Those with lower PNS tend to prefer a relatively
open-minded approach to life, seeking novel experiences
and new information, tolerating greater amounts of ambigu-
ity, and organizing social information with flexibility and
complexity. Although all TMT processes theoretically bol-
ster the sense of meaning in life, differences in PNS suggest
that individuals may derive their sense of meaning through
different channels. The more cognitively flexible tendencies
of individuals with lower (vs. higher) PNS suggest that they
derive meaning through enriching new experiences and the
exploration of novel information and social structures. In
one line of research, death reminders motivated those with
low PNS not only to demonstrate more open-mindedness
but also to seek novel experiences in an effort to experience
a sense of meaning in life. After being reminded of death,
participants low in PNS tended to be more open-minded
regarding violations of the just-world assumption (Landau
et al., 2004, Study 5) and tended to prefer a more flexible
self-concept (Landau, Greenberg, Sullivan, Routledge, &
Arndt, 2009, Study 1). But most notably, when participants
low in PNS were reminded of death, they became more
interested in exploring novel social, intellectual, and envi-
ronmental stimuli, and learning more about alternative cul-
tural worldviews (Vess, Routledge, et al., 2009). Taken
together, this research suggests that terror management pro-
cesses can encourage activities that require a cognitively
flexible mind-set, qualifying as positive because they move
creative or cognitively flexible individuals along a trajec-
tory toward personal growth and cultural enrichment
(Runco, 2004; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Pushing Up Daisies: Considering the
Impact of Direct Encounters With
Death
As we have reviewed, TMT has typically dealt with the psy-
chological repercussions of rather subtle and unanticipated,
if not nonconscious, reminders of mortality. The reasoning
behind this conceptual and methodological focus has been
that terror management mechanisms such as worldview
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14 Personality and Social Psychology Review XX(X)
defense and self-esteem striving are posited to operate on an
ongoing basis given an ever-present underlying awareness
of mortality. Subtle manipulations of death-related thought
are thus used to bring these processes to the fore so they may
be more readily observed in research. However, people also
confront death in a variety of more explicit ways. Individuals
might contemplate death via idle musings, intellectual or
philosophical discussion, and concerted meditations. They
may also confront the prospect of mortality through any
number of experiences, such as those involving the death of
a loved one, a severe illness, aging, a natural disaster, or
violent conflict. Although much of the research in these
areas have not yet been fully integrated with TMT, it is rel-
evant to the present analysis to consider the potential for
psychological growth in the face of such existentially
charged circumstances. In the following, we consider how
such acute awareness of death might influence conscious
terror management processes, as well as nonconscious pro-
cesses, and whether that influence can potentially lead peo-
ple along more positive trajectories.
First, experiences that involve a deeper recognition or
contemplation of mortality may pose an explicit challenge to
one’s terror management systems. As such, these experi-
ences may motivate similarly strong and deliberate efforts to
restructure one’s buffering systems. Here, we briefly draw
on a foundational lesson learned from cognitive dissonance
research (Festinger, 1957). The theory of cognitive disso-
nance posits that the discrepancy between cognitions (atti-
tudes, emotions, goals, motives, etc.) arouses an
uncomfortable anxiety that motivates efforts to resolve that
discrepancy and that the magnitude of the discrepancy deter-
mines the magnitude (strength) of the dissonance-reduction
efforts necessary to effectively restore equanimity. Whereas
subtle discrepancies might be resolved relatively easily with
subtle changes to cognitions or behaviors, major discrepan-
cies require strong and persistent dissonance-reduction
efforts and dramatic changes to behaviors or cognitions. In
this light, viewing TMTs MS hypothesis as a special case of
dissonance-reduction processes can provide useful insights.
That is, the awareness of an inevitable death may be disso-
nant with the basic motivation to be alive and, as with cogni-
tive dissonance, the magnitude of that existential threat will
determine the strength of the terror management efforts nec-
essary to restore equanimity.
To illustrate, TMT suggests that as children progress
through early childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood,
they typically “ride along” the cultural road map toward
accepted contingencies of value and meaning, unquestion-
ingly seeking the culturally communicated and personally
internalized symbols of worth and significance (having the
good job, a two-car garage, and 2.5 children). When pre-
sented with subtle and fleeting reminders of death, as has
been done with MS reminders in much TMT research, exis-
tential concern might be managed by subtly altering cogni-
tions and behaviors to uphold one’s seemingly undying
worldview values and bolster self-esteem. But when circum-
stances force an acute recognition of the real prospect of
mortality, as may happen with terminal or severe illness or
injury, aging, near-death experiences (NDEs), and certain
types of trauma, the shielding curtain of culture may be
thrown back to reveal a very real existential threat that (as of
yet) cannot be actually prevented through any rational or
symbolic terror management buffer. Such experiences can
thus leave one’s typical subtle terror management system
severely challenged, damaged, or jolted from its habitual
ruts. Thus, strong and persistent efforts to explicitly repair or
restructure one’s terror management buffers may be needed
to restore one’s sense of existential security.
The danger here, as has been discussed via anxiety-buffer
disruption theory (Abdollahi, Pyszczynski, Maxfield, &
Luszczynska, in press; Pyszczynski & Kesebir, 2011), is that
such individuals are left unprotected from potentially inca-
pacitating existential anxiety until those buffers are repaired.
However, because the basic terror management motiva-
tion—to quell the awareness of mortality—remains, these
existentially charged experiences can offer the opportunity
for great personal growth and insight as people restore and
refashion their view of themselves and of the things that con-
stitute a significant and meaningful life.
Thus, although tentative, it seems possible that such
intensified awareness of death can have a far-reaching and
lasting impact on both conscious and nonconscious terror
management processes. The persistent or recurring con-
scious awareness and rumination about these existentially
threatening experiences may facilitate efforts to rationally
and deliberately cope with and make sense of one’s experi-
ences, as well as reevaluate and adjust the behaviors, goals,
and values that define the meaning and significance of one’s
life. Similar to prior work on the subtle impact of conscious
death awareness, conscious ruminations in the wake of such
acute existential experiences may lead to positive outcomes
(e.g., personal growth, prosocial interactions, intrinsically
meaningful goals shifts) among individuals who are able to
perceive and take advantage of opportunities to learn about
themselves and refashion their definition of what constitutes
a significant and meaningful life. Furthermore, to the extent
that this process adjusts people’s personal strivings away
from cultural status and toward more growth-oriented or
meaningful goals, nonconscious terror management pro-
cesses might lead to more enriching and prosocial outcomes.
We now turn our attention to some suggestive findings.
Traumatic Experiences and NDEs. We first consider the
growing literature on the impact of exposure to traumatic
events, which often involve harsh encounters with existential
threat. Such experiences can include exposure to combat or a
natural disaster, a life-threatening accident or medical condi-
tion, the loss of a family member or close friend, or physical/
sexual assault, among numerous others. Not surprisingly,
such experiences increase the risk of developing debilitating
anxiety disorders, such as posttraumatic stress disorder
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Vail et al. 15
(PTSD; American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Hathaway,
Boals, & Banks, 2010). Interestingly, research suggests that
these negative outcomes result, in part, because traumatic
experiences break down individuals’ terror management buf-
fers (Abdollahi, Pyszczynski, Maxfield, & Luszczynska,
2011; Chatard et al., 2011; Pyszczynski & Kesebir, 2011; see
also Janoff-Bulman, 1992).
Yet, such traumatic experiences, and the associated severe
disruptions of core belief systems they entail, can also pro-
duce the opportunity for what is often construed as posttrau-
matic growth (PTG) and self-improvement (Baker, Kelly,
Calhoun, Cann, & Tedeschi, 2008; Taku, Calhoun, Cann, &
Tedeschi, 2008; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004, for review). This
is clearly a complicated issue, however, that involves deter-
mining when genuine growth occurs and when reported per-
ceptions of growth merely mask underlying and evolving
distress. Recovery and genuine PTG appears to depend on
the maintenance of social coping resources and the extent to
which individuals are able to make use of the cognitive cop-
ing strategies necessary to deliberately make sense of their
experience and reorganize an effective and meaningful
worldview (Hobfoll, 2011; Linley & Joseph, 2004).
Consistent with the terror management analysis of conscious
processing of death awareness, genuine PTG may occur only
when individuals are able to perceive and engage in effective
coping strategies. Thus, when such resources or coping strat-
egies are unavailable, or are not perceived, individuals may
not engage in active coping and may continue to experience
posttraumatic stress, or reported PTG might reflect an illu-
sory denial of existential distress (Hobfoll, 2011). However,
when individuals perceive and can make use of such
resources or coping strategies, ruminating about the existen-
tially threatening experience may lead individuals to engage
in effective coping efforts, restructuring their core values and
beliefs about the world, ultimately leading to greater mean-
ing in life and enhanced life satisfaction (Taku et al., 2008;
Triplett, Tedeschi, Cann, Calhoun, & Reeve, 2011).
Related work has addressed the impact of “NDEs” in
which people may or may not experience trauma, per se, but
do perceive themselves to be having an out-of-body experi-
ence on the brink of “crossing over” to death (Moody, 1975;
Noyes, 1980; Ring, 1980). Although there are certainly
instances of distressing NDEs, these apparently tend to be
repressed or underreported (Greyson & Bush, 1992), and the
operational definitions of NDEs tend to be circular such that
qualifying NDEs necessarily entail a spiritual element, an
ultimate sense of peace and joy, and a transformed sense of
cosmic unity and meaning (Greyson, 1999). Thus, NDEs are
typically remembered as surreal yet pleasant experiences
leading to an increased acceptance of death and new appre-
ciation for life, and produce a shift in one’s values and goals
such that people who experience an NDE report increased
care for others and a reduced interest in social status and
materialism (e.g., Greyson, 1983; Greyson, 1992; Morse,
1992; Ring, 1991). This post-NDE change in values and
goals bears some similarity to the posttraumatic restructur-
ing of people’s core values and beliefs, as mentioned above,
and suggests that NDEs and PTG experiences may influence
the trajectory of typical nonconscious terror management
processes.
Cozzolino et al. (2004) explored the influence of NDE-
related goal orientations on self-enhancing versus prosocial
behavior. In one study (Cozzolino et al., 2004, Study 1), par-
ticipants indicated their initial interest in extrinsic versus
intrinsic goals, and then either were prompted with a control
task or were given a “death-reflection” task, based on anec-
dotal reports of NDEs, which asked them to (a) visualize
their own death in detail, (b) adopt a limited-time perspec-
tive by imagining how they would handle their final
moments, (c) engage in a life review, and (d) do a perspec-
tive-taking exercise about the impact their death would have
on their family. Participants were then given the opportunity
to take from a limited supply of raffle tickets, good for a
chance to win US$100; taking more tickets increased their
chance of winning, while taking less tickets ostensibly left
more tickets for future participants. Across three similar
studies, among participants with initially stronger extrinsic
goal orientations, the death-reflection condition reduced the
number of tickets taken from the limited public supply.
These results suggest that the reported elements leading to
positive life changes following NDEs can be harnessed to
guide the reprioritization of intrinsic over extrinsic goals in
managing the awareness of death.
Limited-time perspective. Another consequence of direct
contemplation of death may be that people come to recog-
nize their future as especially limited and adjust their goals
and values accordingly. As we have mentioned, people often
strive for grand, successful futures. But, as Charles Dickens
famously illustrated with Ebenezer Scrooge, the future will
inevitably come to join us in the present. On being visited by
the future and led to his own grave, the lesson Scrooge
learned was that for whatever sort of wealthy future he might
have been toiling, the real value was not to be found in his
wealth but in his relationships with others. Socioemotional
selectivity theory (SST; Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles,
1999; Carstensen & Mikels, 2005) provides a way to under-
stand such reactions, positing that when people become
aware that they have a limited amount of time remaining in
their lives, they tend to maximize their positive interpersonal
experiences while minimizing the negative. Thus, being
aware of (or visualizing) the end of life—as may happen fol-
lowing a traumatic or NDE, or during the course of normal
aging, or even during a concerted and direct reflection on the
potential circumstances of one’s own death—may cause
people to become more interpersonally selective, shifting
their interpersonal efforts away from self-enhancement and
toward maintaining meaningful and positive social connec-
tions (Carstensen & Mikels, 2005).
Based in part on this idea, Maxfield et al. (2007) explored
the existential strivings of older, compared with younger,
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16 Personality and Social Psychology Review XX(X)
adults. Clearly, as people grow older, this limited-time
perspective becomes more dominant/salient. As a result,
middle-aged and older adults tend to be more “generative”—
expressing less concern for self-enhancement and heightened
concern and care for others (McAdams, de St. Aubin, &
Logan, 1993; Erikson, 1963). Presumably because the lim-
ited-time perspective and generative concerns are more
prominent among older adults than younger adults, Maxfield
et al. found that older adults reminded of death were more
forgiving of moral transgressors. Specifically, in two studies,
younger (age 17-37) and older (age 57-92) participants were
reminded about death or a control topic, and then asked to
recommend punishment for a moral offender in a series of
vignettes (Maxfield et al., 2007). After MS, older participants
were lenient toward offenders, whereas younger participants
were harsher.
The research of Cozzolino, Sheldon, Schachtman, and
Meyers, (2009, Study 2) potentially helps to pin down the
critical role of a limited-time perspective in such prosocial
responses to the salience of death. In this study, college-age
students were reminded of death, but half were also assigned
to a limited-time perspective condition in which they were
asked to imagine being in life’s “final stage.” Then, they had
the opportunity to take up to 22 of a limited supply of a pub-
lic pool of raffle tickets good for a chance to win US$100.
Although a death reminder on its own increased self-indul-
gent ticket taking, inducing a limited-time perspective
reduced the number of tickets taken, thereby leaving more
available for future participants. These findings suggest that
contemplating mortality in the context of a limited-time per-
spective can lead to prosocial outcomes like forgiveness or
reduced greed.
Summary. This research suggests that the increased mag-
nitude of existential threat experienced during direct con-
templations or encounters with death may challenge or
damage people’s terror management systems, requiring
additional or extended efforts to consciously and deliberately
reconstruct one’s view of a meaningful life and effectively
cope with one’s mortality again. Such processes could poten-
tially lead to personal growth as well as shifts toward intrin-
sic goals and prosocial values. In addition, the goals, values,
and limited-time perspective that often accompanies such
direct contemplations may shift the trajectory of noncon-
scious terror management processes away from self-
enhancement and toward more meaningful and supportive
social behaviors. Future research should assess how con-
scious and nonconscious terror management processes influ-
ence, and are influenced by, these more direct encounters
with death.
Positive Terror Management:
Summary and Future Directions
Despite the traditional emphasis on the dark side of TMT,
the present analysis sought to illustrate some of the ways
that terror management processes can lead to personally and
socially beneficial outcomes. As was explained at the outset,
all terror management processes share the functional goal of
reducing death awareness, or at least minimizing the trou-
bling existential implications thereof. And, as the heuristic
model of optimal terror management depicted in Figure 1
suggests, conditions exist under which those processes can
promote positive outcomes rather than negative ones. In the
following, we briefly and broadly summarize the processes
associated with each set of outcomes depicted in the model
and reviewed in detail in the above sections, and suggest
possible directions for future research based on these pro-
cesses.
The first of these outcomes involved responses to con-
scious death awareness. When people perceive ways to
improve their health, conscious death thoughts motivate
efforts to behave in those physically healthy ways.
Programmatic research (Goldenberg & Arndt, 2008) reveals,
for instance, that factors such as health optimism and
response efficacy facilitate healthy responses to conscious
death-related thought. However, additional work exploring
factors that foster good health is needed. Specifically,
research is needed to understand how the conscious terror
management process affects the recognition of health risks,
estimations of the degree of risk, and other factors that boost
engagement in preventive behavior. Furthermore, relatively
little is known about how physiological states, such as nico-
tine or food cravings, or pain, can impact the healthy risk-
reduction efforts initiated by conscious terror management.
It seems possible that some physiological states could cloud
health judgments (e.g., nicotine cravings), whereas others
might facilitate treatment seeking (e.g., pain) when con-
sciously aware of death.
Conscious awareness of death can also lead to the trivial-
ization of extrinsically oriented goals (e.g., status) and
increased value of intrinsically oriented goals (e.g., growth,
community). However, as we noted earlier, it remains unclear
under exactly what conditions these goal shifts are produced.
Similar to research showing that conscious death awareness
activates healthy behavior among those who perceive ways
to improve their health, one possibility is that the impact of
death awareness on the goal reprioritization process is acti-
vated to the extent that people perceive intrinsically (vs.
extrinsically) oriented life goals as an effective way to
increase their meaning in life. A better understanding of
when and for whom these differences emerge is an important
task for future research.
The second major set of conditions promoting positive
outcomes involved nonconscious terror management pro-
cesses. When death thoughts are nonconsciously accessible,
one important factor that can potentially produce positive
outcomes is the motivation to uphold and attain a sense of
value. When particular worldview-relevant values, norms,
and self-esteem contingencies are active (either situationally
induced or chronically accessible), terror management
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Vail et al. 17
efforts will be directed toward relevant attitudes and behav-
iors. For example, if compassion is worldview relevant and
particularly accessible, then responses to death thoughts
should be guided by the value of compassion. Similarly, if
academic success is a salient gateway to self-esteem, then
terror management efforts might be directed toward aca-
demic success. In addition to the well-known esteem domains
such as academics, business, and sports, these processes may
also emerge when individuals base part of their self-esteem
on other positive behaviors, such as being a caring family
member or friend, a philanthropist, a creative artist or musi-
cian, an environmentally conscientious consumer, or an
adventurous and self-determined individual. Although prob-
lems can arise when pursuing self-esteem contingencies
(Crocker & Park, 2004), certain contingencies may potenti-
ate more productive responses than others.
A growing amount of research also suggests that noncon-
scious death thought motivates efforts to maintain close rela-
tionships and favorable group identifications. Importantly,
this process can lead to increased commitment to maintain-
ing healthy and caring relationships, increased contribution
to one’s community or groups, and increased support of
intergroup peace and cooperation. We reviewed research
demonstrating the terror management role of close and car-
ing relationships, noting the existential security gained from
feeling love and romance as well as the increased commit-
ment to spouses, parents, and offspring. On that note, an
interesting avenue for future research would be to investigate
the role of attachment security in the impact of death aware-
ness on marital commitment and satisfaction, and on the
quality of parenting styles. Furthermore, although much
research has been directed at populations college aged and
older, little is known about terror management processes
among children. Yet, as we noted earlier, children are not
without their existential concerns. Until they achieve a func-
tional integration of their cultural surroundings and meaning
systems, their existential concerns may be primarily dealt
with via basic interpersonal attachment systems (Florian &
Mikulincer, 1998). Thus, research might investigate how
child and parent attachment styles influence the ways exis-
tential fear is managed, as well as how it influences the
child’s adjustment and performance at home, in school, or
with their peers.
In addition, people can manage death concerns by sup-
porting and contributing to the groups to which they belong.
Because, as we noted earlier, favorable self-reflections can
potentially be gleaned from a variety of groups, one key fac-
tor for promoting positive outcomes is whether the individu-
al’s salient affiliations are with groups that provide some
social benefit. Individuals might favorably perceive them-
selves as members of a particular school district, race-based
group (e.g., Ku Klux Klan), scientific community (e.g., the
American Psychological Association), or charitable service
organization (e.g., American Red Cross); the positive impli-
cations of people’s existentially motivated support for such
groups therefore vary as a function of the group’s impact on
society. One interesting avenue for future work would be to
investigate factors that point people’s affiliative strivings
toward more beneficial, tolerant, or charitable groups. For
example, affiliation with and involvement in prosocial
groups might be enhanced by activating certain aspects of an
individual’s identity or by aligning salient group characteris-
tics with an individual’s dominant moral ideology. From a
TMT perspective, though, the challenge here is that groups
more effectively serve terror management goals to the extent
they provide viable avenues for the extraction of self-worth.
Part of the appeal of more rigid and dogmatic groups may be
that they present clearly delineated pathways for obtaining a
sense of significance within that group (Arndt, Landau, Vail,
& Vess, in press).
On a related note are individuals’ perceived group bound-
aries. As reviewed above, increased allegiance to one’s in-
group often entails prejudiced attitudes against those who do
not belong to one’s social groups. However, perceiving
diversity and interconnectedness with members of other out-
groups can reduce these prejudices when managing death
concerns and instead activate efforts to foster a supportive,
tolerant, and caring social environment. One potentially
important question is how blurring or recategorizing one’s
group boundaries impacts existentially motivated invest-
ment in one’s lower level groups. For instance, given that
MS increases support for in-group charities (Jonas et al.,
2002), it would be interesting to know how expressions of
that group support might be affected by an increased sense of
a broader interconnectedness with out-group members. In
addition, future research might expand on the implications of
this work in the contexts of mundane social compromises
and political reconciliations, or in helping to defuse violent
intergroup conflicts.
We also examined a growing body of work demonstrating
that nonconscious terror management processes can lead to
open-minded exploration of novelty among people approach-
ing the world with a flexible or creative mind-set. Open-
minded willingness to expose oneself to new ideas can be
activated by death awareness for individuals with a solid
sense of social connectedness and among those with rela-
tively greater cognitive flexibility. But, this is still a rela-
tively new strand of research about which further insights are
needed.
Another interesting issue in this vein is whether this kind
of cognitive flexibility is implicated in other psychological
characteristics, traits, or abilities, and whether such flexibil-
ity may enable individuals to accept the finality of life and
confront awareness of mortality without the need for terror
management. Extant research has examined two such traits.
Personal hardiness entails having a sense of control over the
solutions to life’s problems, commitment to one’s current life
trajectory, and a tendency to appraise stressful events as
challenges from which one can grow (Kobasa, Maddi, &
Kahn, 1982). Working from the perspective that hardiness
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18 Personality and Social Psychology Review XX(X)
would thus attenuate the need for terror management,
Florian, Mikulincer, and Hirschberger (2001) assessed hardi-
ness, manipulated MS, and then measured death-thought
accessibility (Study 2) and severity of punishments against
moral transgressors (Study 1). Mortality reminders increased
death-thought accessibility regardless of hardiness levels,
but only those low on hardiness increased punishment sever-
ity. Although these findings suggest that hardiness can avert
harsher reactions to death awareness, it remains to be seen
whether hardy individuals would respond to mortality
reminders with other (perhaps positive) forms of terror man-
agement. Thus, research into the existential role of hardiness
(and other forms of resilience, for example, optimism,
Rasmussen, Wrosch, Scheier, & Carver, 2006; Scheier &
Carver, 1985; ego resiliency, Block & Block, 1980; Letzring,
Block, & Funder, 2005) is needed, given that these findings
suggest that resilient coping styles may help shield against at
least more deleterious forms of worldview defense after
reminders of mortality.
In a related vein, Niemiec et al. (2010) investigated
whether trait mindfulness, which also entails a receptive and
accepting attention to internal and external events, could
eliminate defensive responses to death awareness. Across
six studies, MS increased defensive reactions (e.g., deroga-
tion of out-group members, self-esteem striving) after a
delay among those with low, but not high, mindfulness.
Although these are interesting findings, at least two issues
merit further research. First, Niemiec et al. (Study 7) also
found that after MS, in contrast to those low in mindfulness
(and previous research), more mindful individuals showed
elevated death-thought accessibility immediately but not
after a delay. The terror management outcomes in the six
other studies, however, were only measured with a delay.
Given that nonconscious accessibility of death-related cog-
nition was heightened immediately after MS for high mind-
ful individuals, it is possible that typical terror management
responses might manifest immediately, when death-thought
accessibility was high, rather than after a delay, when it was
low. That is, the influence of mindfulness may affect the
way people process conscious thoughts of death (such as
accepting, rather than suppressing, it) but might not neces-
sarily affect the processing of nonconscious death thought.
Second, even if one assumes that mindfulness reduces the
need for harsh or negative forms of nonconscious psycho-
logical defense, as may similarly be the case with hardiness,
it remains unclear whether mindfulness might facilitate
positive forms of terror management or simply eliminate the
need for any coping response—whether adaptive or mal-
adaptive. Nonetheless, each of these research directions rep-
resents a promising avenue for examining traits that might
enable people to manage the awareness of mortality in pro-
ductive and enriching ways. These directions are also par-
ticularly interesting given the success of various interventions
and training programs to increase mindful approaches to
life.
And finally, we offered some preliminary thoughts about
how certain conditions that foster an acute and persistent
awareness of death can move people toward a positive tra-
jectory. Because direct encounters with death—such as the
passing of a loved one or the occurrence of some other trau-
matic experience—can potentially increase the magnitude of
existential threat beyond the buffering capacity of one’s
extant terror management system, such experiences can
challenge or damage the typical or routine ways of managing
death awareness. However, consciously and deliberately
revising and reconstructing one’s death-denying system of
meaning can potentially produce shifts toward intrinsic goals
and prosocial values and lead to personal growth.
In sum, the present analysis highlights a number of ways
that terror management processes can lead to personally and
socially beneficial outcomes.5 In presenting this analysis, we
also constructed a preliminary, heuristic model of positive
terror management (Figure 1) to organize the theoretical
ideas and supporting research. We think the model offers a
useful and integrative guide for understanding the poten-
tially positive impact of conscious and nonconscious death
thought on people’s behaviors and attitudes.
Conclusion: Death Can be Good
for Life
Without suffering and death, human life cannot be
complete.
Viktor E. Frankl (1946/2006, p. 67)
As we suggested at the outset, the dance with death can be a
delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good
life. The conscious awareness of mortality can motivate
people to enhance their physical health and reprioritize
intrinsically meaningful goals and values, and nonconscious
death awareness can move people to live up to positive stan-
dards and beliefs, such as environmental concern or compas-
sion; build positive relationships with friends, family, and
loved ones; encourage helpful community involvement;
support peaceful intergroup coexistence; and can foster cer-
tain self-enriching behaviors, such as creative expression or
the exploration of novelty. We also offered some preliminary
consideration of the potentially positive implications of
more direct confrontations with death. Thus, the present
analysis offers some initial insights into some of the benefi-
cial implications of the human effort to manage the psycho-
logical awareness of death.
Yet, having elaborated on the beneficial aspects of TMT
throughout this article, it is useful to remember the words of
Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, “Not all that glitters is gold, half
the story has never been told” (1973). That other half of the
story, as many readers are likely aware, is that TMT also
explains the existential issues underlying the “dark side” of
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Vail et al. 19
social-psychological phenomena (see Greenberg et al., 2008;
Pyszczynski, Rothschild, & Abdollahi, 2008). But whereas
the dark side of death-related motivation can manifest in dis-
tasteful ways, the approach presented here elucidates how
TMT is not inherently focused on negative processes and
that the benefits or growth stemming from death-related
experiences can arise from that very same set of terror man-
agement processes. Thus, by taking an appreciative approach
(King, 2008; Sheldon, 2011), we have attempted to remain
mindful of the broader scope of TMT, and point out that
although death awareness can, at times, function to generate
some negative forces, it can also function to move people
along more positive trajectories and contribute to the good
life.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with
respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
article.
Funding
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support
for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article:
Preparation of this article was supported in part by a National
Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a National
Cancer Institute Grant (R01CA096581) awarded to the first and
third authors, respectively.
Notes
1. There are, of course, other psychological threats (uncertainty,
meaninglessness, social exclusion, etc.) that can, and do,
impact some of the same outcomes discussed here. Thus, ter-
ror management theory (TMT) does not claim that death is
the only psychological threat capable of eliciting self-esteem
striving, defense of one’s beliefs, and the like. It does, how-
ever, argue that death is a unique psychological threat, and
the available research comparing the effects of death-related
cognition relative to these other types of threats, as well as
research on factors influencing patterns of death-thought
accessibility, supports the conclusion that death awareness
exerts a potent and unique motivating influence on people’s
attitudes and behaviors. In addition to a meta-analysis by Mar-
tens, Burke, Schimel, and Faucher (2011), this general issue
has been discussed extensively in a variety of published arti-
cles (e.g., Hayes, Schimel, Arndt, & Faucher, 2010; Pyszczyn-
ski, Greenberg, Solomon, & Maxfield, 2006), so we will not
belabor the point here. From our perspective, the important
question is not about which threat underlies all other threats
but how to better explore and understand the differential moti-
vating impacts of each.
2. In a 2000 issue of Psychological Inquiry, Pyszczynski, Green-
berg, and Solomon (2000) referred to TMT as a “pessimis-
tic” theory during a dialogue in which they and Deci and
Ryan (2000) each accepted that TMT was particularly adept
at explaining the “dark side” of human motivation. While
this characterization may be accurate, it does not support the
more extreme view that TMT is limited to explaining only
such harmful forms of social behavior. Yet this more exagger-
ated view has been implied in the literature (e.g., Cozzolino,
2006; Cozzolino, Staples, Meyers, & Samboceti, 2004; Wong
& Tomer, 2011). For instance, after noting that as a result of
TMT, “social scientists have been better able to explain and to
predict the rather unsettling forms of defensive behavior that
are prevalent in this post-September 11, 2001 age of terror and
war,” Cozzolino (2006, pp. 279-280) went on to suggest that
“obviously, positive and intrinsic growth reactions to mortality
awareness do not entirely jibe with the theoretical framework
or much of the empirical evidence supporting TMT.”
3. From the current perspective, terror management processes
are “defensive” in the sense that they protect individuals from
accessible death-related thought. However, it is important to
clarify that this does not mean that all such reactions carry the
negative baggage attached to the term defensive—as socially
antagonistic, rigid, or reactionary. A central thesis of this
article is that, just as there are adaptive and maladaptive cop-
ing mechanisms, there are both positive and negative ways to
“defend” oneself against the awareness of mortality. Indeed,
the present analysis illustrates that (a) although self-enrich-
ment, well-being, and pursuit of self-enriching goals may be
outcomes commonly associated with growth-oriented motiva-
tion, such outcomes are not exclusively produced by growth
motivation and (b) although such defensive motivations as
those involved in terror management processes may often
lead to rigid, socially antagonistic biases, such outcomes are
not inevitable. Thus, our position is consistent with the “dual
motives” perspective (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon,
1995; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, et al., in press), which has dis-
cussed ways in which defensive and growth-oriented motiva-
tions can each lead to a range of possible outcomes ranging
from rigid and reactionary responses to creative, prosocial, or
otherwise enriching or integrative endeavors.
4. Such laboratory effects are also generally consistent with
recent archival research. Although not examining reminders of
mortality per se, social and economic threats, which may con-
jure up existential concerns, led to more executions and death
sentences in conservative U.S. states but fewer such sentences
in liberal states (McCann, 2008).
5. One major obstacle to knowing how conflicts between these
factors might be resolved, or knowing which of these factors
exerts the most powerful influence on terror management
processes, is that TMT research, like most research in social
psychology (e.g., that investigating dissonance reduction,
uncertainty responses, social exclusion, etc.), has typically
employed methods that present participants with a particular
dependent variable in an effort to observe a particular hypothe-
sized response. Although this approach has revealed many dif-
ferent ways of managing death awareness, it is not well suited
to determining the preference for one type of response over
others. Thus, one more promising avenue for future research
would be to attempt to determine which of the possible
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20 Personality and Social Psychology Review XX(X)
buffering mechanisms is the default or preferred mechanism,
for whom, and when. Such research efforts could involve
directly comparing the effectiveness of various buffers and
assessing the extent to which there might be a fluid compen-
sation process involved, or could involve providing several
buffer choices and assessing the extent to which individuals do
or do not rely on each possible buffer.
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... A. McGregor et al., 1998;Norenzayan et al., 2009) and ideological closed-mindedness . A growing body of research, however, suggests that when people hold open-minded belief systems that value empathy, equality, and tolerance, or hold goals oriented toward personal growth and cultural exploration, MS can instead motivate people to become less ethnocentric and more open-minded, tolerant, and accepting of culturally dissimilar people and ideas (Rogers et al., 2019;Vail, Horner et al., 2019;Vail, Juhl et al., 2012). Although no prior research has addressed such issues as a function of quest, we can turn to some suggestive research on religious fundamentalism, which is inversely related to quest and characterized by ethnocentric prejudice and authoritarian closedmindedness (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992;Crowson, 2009;Rowatt & Franklin, 2004). ...
... Additionally, MS led quest-oriented believers to become less ethnocentric and more tolerant of nontraditional ideas (Study 4). This finding is, on one hand, consistent with a growing body of research finding that when people hold open-minded belief systems that value empathy, equality, and tolerance, or hold goals oriented toward personal growth and cultural exploration, MS can motivate them to live up to those values and become more open-minded and accepting of culturally dissimilar people and ideas (Rogers et al., 2019;Vail, Horner et al., 2019;Vail, Juhl et al., 2012). But it is also consistent with recent suggestions from both the anxiety-buffer disruption perspective Vail, Reed et al., 2020) and the religious meaningmaking model (Park, 2010(Park, , 2020) that when individuals experience thoughts or events that undermine their existential buffers, the death-related stress can motivate efforts to explore ways to either restore or replace them with the goal of achieving existential peace again. ...
... Indeed, prior work has found that MS can motivate tolerance and open-mindedness among, for example, people who are reminded of or chronically aware of their tolerant or compassionate values (Vail, Juhl et al., 2012); individuals who engage in creative activity that promotes open-mindedness or reminded of the value of creativity (Rogers et al., 2019); or persons who explicitly value openmindedness and personal growth (Boyd et al., 2017;Vail, Horner et al., 2019). But those prior research streams were areas where it was unlikely that participants doubted their worldviews, and were likely areas where individuals held confident faith in a constellation of beliefs that affirmatively valued growth-oriented openness; thus, existential concerns motivated increased tolerance or cultural exploration as a "defense" of those death-denying values. ...
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Terror management theory suggests people can manage existential concerns through faith in their cultural systems, including religious beliefs. It is not clear, however, how people with a religious "quest" orientation manage such existential concerns. The present research explored the intersection between existential concern and religious quest. Quest individuals experience doubt, which comes at the cost of greater death-related anxieties (Study 1, n= 654), cognitions (Study 2, n = 167), and vulnerability against mortality reminders (Study 3, n= 226). Second, mortality salience (MS) led people high in quest to become more culturally open-minded (Study 4, n = 100), and less likely to believe-in or commit-to their supernatural agent (Study 5, n = 120). These responses were mitigated when quest individuals were first prompted to explore (a step toward resolving) their doubts and uncertainties (Study 6, n = 462). Implications for quest orientation and existential defense-vs. growth-motivation are discussed. The music of composer Gustav Holst illustrates a connection between existential concerns (e.g., ill-health, mortality) and an approach to the world that involves doubts, open-minded exploration of cultural and spiritual ideas, and a willingness to face existential questions in all their complexity. Despite hopeful conservatory training in piano, Holst experienced severe health problems at an early age. By 21, he began exploring a less strenuous career in music composition and-though raised Christian-also began exploring non-Christian spiritual and philosophical ideas, including astrology, Hinduism, and Sanskrit literature (Holst, 1988; Short, 1990). Unsurprisingly, his musical compositions reflect his spiritual quest, including Christian church music (e.g., Ave Maria, The Hymn of Jesus); Hindu hymns, operas, and tone poems based on the Rig Vedas and the Ramayana (e.g., Sita, Indra); and his famed orchestral suite based on astrological mysticism (e.g., The Planets), which later inspired John Williams's musical scoring for the Star Wars films. Although unique and notable, Holst is in many ways representative of many who venture beyond their familiar religious beliefs in an existential quest. The present research seeks to investigate and better understand the possible connection between existential concerns and religious quest orientation. Research based on terror management theory (TMT; Greenberg et al., 1986) suggests that people can manage their existential anxieties by maintaining faith in their various cultural systems, including religious beliefs. It is not clear, however, how people with a religious "quest" orientation might manage such existential concerns. Research on individual differences in religious orientation has identified that some believers experience their spirituality as a religious quest (Batson et al.
... Keywords death reflection, mortality cues, authenticity, autonomous motivation, individual differences Existential psychologists (e.g., May, 1950;Yalom, 1980) have long acknowledged the potential for death awareness to induce both profound anxiety and, in overcoming this anxiety, the pursuit of a more authentic and fulfilling way of living through reprioritizing one's values and goals. While both experimental and non-experimental research traditions have acknowledged that contemplating mortality can have positive outcomes (Vail et al., 2012), there has been very limited direct empirical study of authentic goal-striving in this context. This study therefore brings the focus back to the existential argument that confronting mortality can specifically facilitate growth toward more authentic living, as expressed through autonomous motivation for life goals. ...
... On the other hand, deeply personalized confrontations with death as occur in trauma and NDEs are argued to activate specific information processing, whereby responses are based upon what is most personally relevant and specific to one's life (e.g., personal needs and values). Additionally, the more long-term, conscious processing of death awareness in the latter cases has been identified as an important distinguishing feature that facilitates deliberate shifts in goal-striving (Vail et al., 2012). ...
... While the NDE and posttraumatic growth findings are predominantly reliant upon retrospective self-reports of growth, they are reinforced by experimental research demonstrating that deeper, more conscious contemplations of death have less negative and more positive outcomes (see Vail et al., 2012). In particular, Cozzolino et al. (2004) developed a death reflection task to induce more specific, personal thoughts of death than the inductions used within the TMT literature. ...
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Despite research demonstrating positive outcomes of conscious death reflection, very little research directly examines a core proposition of existential psychologists—that death reflection provides an opportunity for more authentic living. The current study compared individuals chronically exposed to genuine mortality cues (funeral/cemetery workers, n = 107) to a matched control sample ( n = 121) on autonomous motivation. It also assessed the moderating role of six constructs implicated in growth-oriented processing of death reflection: psychological flexibility, curiosity, neutral death acceptance, death anxiety, approach-oriented coping, and avoidant coping. Funeral/cemetery workers were significantly higher on autonomous motivation, and death-related work was found to have a more positive association with autonomous motivation for those higher on flexibility and lower on death anxiety. This has implications for both understanding which individuals are most likely to experience growth motivations when confronting death, and potential avenues for facilitating these motivations to enhance well-being.
... Death reflections (DR) are thoughts concerning death that can lead to positive behavior (Cozzolino et al., 2004;Yuan et al., 2018). Past research has focused on the negative, anxiety producing aspects of death cognition and has largely ignored the possible positive, growth-oriented, humanistic results of contemplating mortality (Cozzolino et al., 2004;Vail et al., 2012;Yuan et al., 2018). Contemplating mortality has been found to increase health-related choices, including smoking cessation (Martin & Kamins, 2009), sunscreen application (Routledge et al., 2004), seatbelt fastening (Popham et al., 2011), HIV testing (Grover & Miller, 2014), and more. ...
... Death Reflection allows a person to use death in a positive, growth-oriented way rather than in a stigmatic one (Cozzolino et al., 2004). Thus, the present study provides further support that viewing death with positive outcomes and potential for growth may reduce DA (Vail et al., 2012). However, interpretation of this finding is limited given how infrequently it has been examined, and the one other available study that directly probed DA and DR using similar instruments found positive correlations (Curseu et al., 2021). ...
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Previous work has established that gender, age, and self-control can predict Death Anxiety (DA), the distress that centers around thoughts of one's mortality. However, it has not been determined if DA is associated with Delay of Gratification (DG; a tendency to forgo immediate rewards to receive a more favorable outcome in the future), attitudes toward gender roles (as compared to gender identity itself), and Death Reflections (DR; positive goals that occur when contemplating death). To examine these relations, 131 adults (45% women; aged 23-67 years) completed questionnaires that assess these constructs. We found that greater DG, egalitarian gender role attitudes, and engagement with DR were all associated with reduced DA. Gender identity was not associated with any variable, including DA. Age correlated independently with DA, but not when included in the regression models. These results demonstrate that elements of self-regulation and prosocial attitudes may predict baseline DA.
... As noted earlier, mortality salience has been associated with prosocial behavior [34] and health-oriented behavior [40]. When influenced by the cultural worldview, individuals' prosocial motivation is stimulated. ...
... As discussed earlier, mortality salience triggers two behavioral motivations. One is the self-protective motivation, such as the need for self-health and safety [40]. The other is prosocial motivation, such as the concern for the welfare of others [43]. ...
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During the pandemic, the mortality salience of COVID-19 has affected everyone. The public is extremely sensitive to food safety, especially cold chain food and imported food. This research is based on the terror management theory, protective motivation theory, and self-construal theory. It proposes an integrated dual-path framework to explore the different mechanisms that mortality salience has on food safety behavior. The result of three experiments verified our conjectures. First, mortality salience positively affects individuals' food safety behavior. More importantly, we found the dual-path mechanism that underlies the effect, that is, the mediating of self-protective motivation and prosocial motivation. In addition, different self-construals make the confirmed effect clear. These findings provide implications for the government to protect public food safety and health.
... In other words, although it may be a perennial source of anxiety or dread, it can also motivate creative and life-enhancing pursuits. 45 Thus, awareness of the inevitability of death can enrich life. Indeed, this may be one of the primary reasons for the effectiveness of logotherapy. ...
Article
Background: Although logotherapy has been shown to relieve other psychological symptoms of patients with cancer, no studies have specifically investigated the effect of logotherapy on anxiety about death and existential loneliness in these patients. Objective: The aim of this study was to determine the effect of group logotherapy on anxiety about death and existential loneliness in patients with advanced cancer. Methods: Sixty-three patients who were in the advanced stage of cancer were recruited from 2 hospital oncology services and were randomly assigned to either experimental (n = 31) or control group (n = 32). The intervention group received 10 weekly 2-hour group logotherapy. Templer's Death Anxiety Scale and ELQ were completed pre- and posttreatment. Results: A 2 × 2 mixed analysis of variance was used to determine the effect of the treatment on each of the dependent variables. The analyses revealed that patients in the logotherapy group reported a significant decrease in anxiety about death and existential loneliness after (vs before) the treatment. No significant decreases were observed in the waitlist control group. Conclusions: These results have implications for treating death anxiety and feelings of existential loneliness among patients with advanced cancer. They suggest that group logotherapy is highly effective in reducing these existential concerns. Limitations and avenues for future research are discussed. Implications for practice: The study emphasizes that group logotherapy can be considered in oncology care programs by healthcare professionals and in educational curriculums and is suggested for use among caregivers and patients with advanced cancer.
... This means that people with a predilection for rumination while experiencing CSS anxiety perceive a higher level of PPG, but if they do not experience it, they perceive a lower level of PPG. This finding is consistent with the finding of a relationship between anxiety for life and health and growth processes in various ways (Cox et al., 2021;Vail et al., 2012). It is worth noting that COVID-19 related anxiety measurement also takes into account the anxiety about friends and family as well as what may happen in the future. ...
... Bringing thoughts of death to mind can provoke anxiety but also result in positive psychosocial processes (Vail et al., 2012). One aspect of life review (Butler, 1963) is to ask: when I'm gone, will I be remembered as having lived a good life? ...
Article
How the good life manifests in one’s narrative identity may be shaped by their consideration that their life story will have an ending. This study takes a eudaimonic approach, investigating human virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) as central to the good life. Since reflection on life’s finitude may depend on age, three adult life phases were sampled (young, middle-aged, and older adults). Narrative identity was tapped through a self-defining memory (SDM) as well as descriptors of the SDM provided in line with one of two conditions: (i) Current-SDM, according to classic SDM instructions, or (ii) Memorialize-SDM, according to instructions prompting them to consider death, and how they want to be remembered. SDMs were content-analyzed for total virtues present, and type of virtue present. Two-way ANOVA showed more virtues, in total, were narrated in Memorialize-SDMs than Current-SDMs, regardless of participant age. Humanity and Courage & Justice occurred more frequently than other virtues in the SDMs. Narrative examples of virtue are presented and discussed. Findings suggest that, compared to those considering only their current life circumstance, individuals considering their death more frequently refer to having a virtuous, good life.
... Several literature perspectives anchored in different disciplines allow us to conceptualize the impact of natural disasters on life transition choices. Within the broad psychology literature on the mental health consequences of disasters (Freedy et al., 1992;Leiva-Bianchi et al., 2018), part of the socio-psychology literature suggests that experiencing a shocking natural hazard makes people remind people about the transience of life and mortality which, in turn, boosts individual preferences for intrinsic goals (Vail et al., 2012), enhances the research from proximity and support (Solomon et al., 1991), and modifies time and risk preferences by increasing impatience (Cassar et al., 2017). In line with this view, experiencing a disaster would translate into an increase in nuptiality and fertility. ...
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Drawing on socio-psychology and economics literature contributions, this paper provides an original conceptual framework examining whether and how natural disasters exert any influence on nuptiality. Scholars suggest that disasters remind people about the transience of life and mortality. This feature triggers shifting towards intrinsic meaningful goals — such as commitment to relationships; at the same time, it fosters people’s proximity and support-seeking from their security providing attachment figures and leads to accelerate life transition choices. In this view, disasters are expected to positively impact on people’s intentions to marry. Such an effect is evident in case of natural hazards determining slight damage to physical capital (buildings, productive locations, etc.) which have limited economic consequences that do not hamper marriage intentions. Meanwhile, in the case of highly disruptive disasters, these positive psychological pushes are counterbalanced or even exceeded by the negative economic consequences of the disaster, which inhibit marriage intentions. These predictions are supported by an empirical analysis that relies on a difference-in-differences investigation of municipality-level nuptiality data collected in the Abruzzo region of Italy before and after the major 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.
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To create environments conducive to the wellbeing of workers, especially older workers, it is important to gain insight into ageism among young workers as a distinct segment in the workplace. However, this ageism remains unclear. This study explored the psychosocial predictors of discrimination against older Japanese workers by their younger male counterparts. Four models – Intergroup Contact Theory (ICT), Knowledge–Attitude–Behaviour Model (KABM), Terror Management Theory (TMT) and Frustration–Aggression Theory (FAT) – formed the basis of the study. All the models included positive and negative dimensions of stereotypes as mediators between predictors and discrimination. Data from 874 participants were obtained through a voluntary web survey for employees aged 25–39 years who lived in the Tokyo metropolitan area. A scale describing interactions with older workers (supportive, uncomfortable and avoidance), Facts on Ageing quiz, fears of being an older worker and a job dissatisfaction survey were employed to examine the hypotheses based on the above theories. The results supported the hypotheses based on ICT and FAT but not KABM. Higher supportive contacts were significantly related to lower discrimination mediated by a higher positive and lower negative dimension of stereotypes. Contacts characterised by higher discomfort were significantly related to higher discrimination mediated by a lower positive and higher negative dimension of stereotypes. Higher job dissatisfaction was related to higher discrimination mediated by lower positive stereotypes. Interestingly, higher fear of being an older worker was significantly related to lower discrimination mediated by higher positive stereotypes, contrary to the TMT-based hypotheses. Thus, ICT and FAT regarding ageism can explain young male workers’ discrimination against older workers in Japan, which differs culturally from Western countries. Furthermore, the results of the study suggest that boosting the quality of interactions as well as reducing bad interactions with older workers contribute to lower discrimination.
Article
The overarching mission of Death Cafes is to raise people's consciousness about life's temporality so that they make the most of their finite lives. Death Cafés create a space for people to gather and have an open dialogue about death and dying. The current qualitative research study explores the experience of nine participants who engage in Death Cafes as facilitators or attendees. Findings including themes of "The Setting", "The Players", and "The Conversation" explore the experiences of Death Cafe participation. Discussion of findings and implications include death rituals, commercialization of death experiences, and the supportive community of the Death Cafe.
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Merging insights from the intergroup relations literature and terror management theory, the authors conducted an experiment in which they assessed the impact of death-related thoughts on a series of ingroup measures. Participants in the mortality-salience condition displayed stronger ingroup identification, perceived greater ingroup entitativity, and scored higher on ingroup bias measures. Also, perceived ingroup entitativity as well as ingroup identification mediated the effect of the mortality salience manipulation on ingroup bias. The findings are discussed in relation to theories of intergroup relations and terror management theory. A new perspective on the function of group belonging also is presented.
Thesis
Some people argue that contingencies of self-worth are indispensable sources of motivation (Pyszczynski & Cox, 2004; Sheldon, 2004). However, threatened egotism is associated with self-defeating behaviors that decrease the odds of success (Baumeister, 1997), and there are many situations in which contingent self-worth may lead to feeling more threatened. High and low self-esteem people also respond to threats differently (Brockner, 1979), and these differences interact with the effects of contingent self-worth to predict different self-regulatory outcomes for contingent high and low self-esteem people. In four laboratory studies, I tested the idea that contingencies of self-worth have costs for self-regulation as well as benefits. Contingencies of self-worth were associated with greater effort and better performance on medium difficulty or effort-dependent tasks, and for low self-esteem people on a very difficult task and on tasks following positive feedback. However, contingent self-worth also impaired self-regulation in several ways. It predicted greater ego depletion leading to poorer subsequent performance. In addition, contingent self-worth predicted marginally less effort and impaired performance for high self-esteem people on a very difficult task, and for low self-esteem people on tasks following negative feedback. These effects were not replicated with non self-esteem reasons for importance of a domain of life. Contingencies of self-worth seem to be a double-edged sword for self-regulation: when self-esteem is invested, people adjust their effort and performance to protect self-worth. If the behavior that protects self-worth is the same as the one that enhances performance, contingent self-worth leads to success, but if the behavior that protects self-worth differs from the one that enhances performance, success may be sacrificed to protect self-worth.
Article
Empirical studies (n = 39) that documented positive change following trauma and adversity (e.g., posttraumatic growth, stress‐related growth, perceived benefit, thriving; collectively described as adversarial growth) were reviewed. The review indicated that cognitive appraisal variables (threat, harm, and controllability), problem‐focused, acceptance and positive reinterpretation coping, optimism, religion, cognitive processing, and positive affect were consistently associated with adversarial growth. The review revealed inconsistent associations between adversarial growth, sociodemographic variables (gender, age, education, and income), and psychological distress variables (e.g., depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder). However, the evidence showed that people who reported and maintained adversarial growth over time were less distressed subsequently. Methodological limitations and recommended future directions in adversarial growth research are discussed, and the implications of adversarial growth for clinical practice are briefly considered.
Article
The terror management prediction that reminders of death motivate in-group identification assumes people view their identifications positively. However, when the in-group is framed negatively, mortality salience should lead to disidentification. Study 1 found that mortality salience increased women's perceived similarity to other women except under gender-based stereotype threat. In Study 2, mortality salience and a negative ethnic prime led Hispanic as well as Anglo participants to derogate paintings attributed to Hispanic (but not Anglo-American) aritsts. Study 3 added a neutral prime condition and used a more direct measure of psychological distancing. Mortality salience and the negative prime led Hispanic participants to view themselves as especially different from a fellow Hispanic. Implications for understanding in-group derogation and disidentification are briefly discussed.