Existential Meaning and Terror Management (2024)

Terror management theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) was originally derived from cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s (1971, 1973, 1975) effort to integrate and synthesize findings from anthropology, biology, psychoanalysis, social psychology and sociology in the service of elucidating the motivational underpinnings of human behavior. In one of his earliest works, The Birth and Death of Meaning, Becker (1971, p. vii) proposed that addressing the question—“What makes people act the way they do?”—required an account of how, and why, human beings construct meaning, as well as the personal and interpersonal ramifications of a dearth of meaning.

The Birth of Meaning

Becker argued that qualitatively different levels of meaning arise in various forms of life as a function of their cognitive complexity. Increasing complexity results in progressive freedom of reactivity, where freedom of reactivity is defined as the extent to which an organism can respond in varied ways to a given stimulus.

At the simplest level, single cellular organisms derive a rudimentary sense of meaning by virtue of responding systematically to specific stimuli in their environments, albeit invariably and insentiently; for example, amoebas move inexorably toward food, and away from very bright light or strongly acidic or alkaline water.

More sophisticated creatures acquire a second level of meaning due to their capacity to learn via classical conditioning: when a naturally occurring response is elicited by a previously neutral stimulus. A bell has no meaning to Pavlov’s hungry dogs hearing it for the first time just prior to being fed; nor does it have any intrinsic connection to the food. However, with repeated pairings, the bell becomes meaningful (“the birth of meaning”) as animals implicitly recognize a contingent association between the bell and food. Moreover, the classically conditioned response can subsequently be elicited by a similar-sounding bell; that is, generalization as a function of perceptual similarity.

Chimps procure a third level of meaning through learning by insight. For example, Sultan, Wolfgang Kohler’s hungry chimp, appeared to suddenly realize that he could stack boxes on top of each other to get at a piece of fruit dangling on a rope from the ceiling. Subsequently, when there were no boxes in the room, Sultan immediately dragged Kohler under the fruit and climbed on him to get the snack. This represents a significant increase in freedom of reactivity over classical conditioning, because Kohler’s chimp was actively engaged in goal-directed instrumental behavior, whereas Pavlov’s dog was passively discerning a contingency between the bell and food. Additionally, whereas generalization in classical conditioning is limited to stimuli that are perceptually similar to the original conditioned stimulus, insight learning produces immediate transfer to novel situations with perceptually dissimilar stimuli: Kohler did not have to look like a box for Sultan to effectively deploy him as a means to get closer to the fruit.

Humans, in addition to deriving meaning from reflexive reactivity, classical conditioning, and insight learning, use symbols in pursuit of meaning. Animals depend on signs, whereby the relationship between a sign and what it signifies is non-arbitrary and (relatively) invariant; for example, a growling dog baring its teeth invariably signifies aggression; the bee’s waggle dance always signifies the location of, and distance from, food. Symbols are, in contrast to signs, arbitrary; for example, cat (English), macska (Hungarian), and gato (Portuguese) all refer to the same small, typically furry, carnivorous mammal, and there is, in principle, no limit to the number of symbols that could be created to refer to the same creature.

For Becker, symbols represent the “birth” of genuinely human meanings. Symbols enabled our ancestors to construct social roles, with associated behavioral norms, that served as a proxy for primate dominance hierarchies (e.g., always defer to whomever is wearing the crown), and reduced uncertainty—and thus enhanced predictability and control—in complex social situations (e.g., females wearing wedding bands are unavailable as potential mates). Additionally, symbols fostered creativity by enabling humans to imagine objects not currently in existence, and ultimately to render the products of their collective imagination in reality. These social and technical innovations allowed humans to live in larger groups, which in turn increased social complexity and the elaboration of consciousness and self-consciousness (Humphrey, 1984), and language (Mithen, 1996).

Self-conscious (“I”)-reflective, time-binding humans could delay immediate reactions in unexpected or novel situations in order to explicitly consider previous experiences and ponder the possible outcomes of future actions. They could also, however, observe family members and friends dying from starvation, natural disasters, hungry predators, or the ravages of time, and by inference, realize that their own deaths were ultimately unavoidable, and indeed, could occur at any time. The realization of personal mortality threatened to undermine, if not totally obliterate, all prior sources of meaning, producing potentially debilitating terror and rendering our ancestors too anxious and/or demoralized to engage in effective instrumental behaviors (Solomon, Greenberg, Schimel, Arndt, & Pyszczysnki, 2004).

The consequent uniquely human existential terror of death was the psychological impetus for the shaping of cultural worldviews: humanly constructed symbolic belief systems that serve to assuage death anxiety by affording an overarching meaning to life and enduring value to the self. Cultural worldviews provide meaning by addressing the universal cosmological questions that invariably arise in a finite self-conscious creature: How did I get here? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What happens to me when I die?

Toward this end, all cultures offer an account of the origin of the universe. All cultures have prescriptions of appropriate conduct associated with specific social roles in the community. All cultures offer some hope of literal and/or symbolic immortality. Literal immortality is based on some aspect of one’s self continuing after death, such as concepts of souls, reincarnations, transmutations, heavens, and afterlives common to most religions; or, on never dying in the first place. Examples of the latter include the fervent quests that have taken place since the age of antiquity for secret potions and fountains of youth, and more recent efforts such as cryogenics, which aims to keep frozen bodies intact until techniques can be developed to revive them or transfer the self from its corporeal container into a more durable computer substrate. Symbolic immortality is derived from the belief that, despite death, some vestige of one’s identity will persist over time; this may be achieved, perhaps, by having children, being part of a mighty and enduring tribe or nation, amassing vast fortunes and monuments to the self, leading transformative political or religious movements, or producing great works of art or science (Lifton, 1979).

Existential meaning acquired by confident adherence to a cultural worldview is necessary, but not sufficient, for psychological equanimity. Additionally, individuals must perceive that they are meeting or exceeding that standard of value associated with the social roles that they inhabit in the context of their worldviews; for example, saving lives for nurses, flying planes for pilots, making money for hedge-fund managers, or successfully raising children for mothers. Self-esteem, the belief that one is a person of value in a world of meaning, serves to buffer anxiety in general, and about death in particular, because it qualifies the individual for the protection and modes of death transcendence provided by the cultural worldview.

Self-esteem acquires its anxiety-buffering properties in the context of socialization. Human infants are born profoundly immature and dependent, and hence prone to anxiety, which serves as the impetus for the formation of physical and psychological attachments to their primary caretakers, who provide their progeny with a pervasive sense of warmth and security when they reliably attend to their needs (Bowlby, 1969). For a year or two parents generally provide infants with unconditional attention, affection, and support. Thereafter, however, infants must be socialized—that is, compelled to do things they don’t want to, and not to do things they do want to—in order to ensure that they adhere to cultural dictates, and to keep them alive. And because infants are too cognitively and emotionally immature to understand parental demands made via gentle persuasion or expressed through rational discourse, parents have no choice but to alter their children’s behavior by the conditional dispensation of affection. Specifically, when children behave appropriately they receive healthy doses of parental approval, resulting in a sense of safety and security. However, parental responses to children’s inappropriate behavior range from punishment to psychological abuse to withholding affection, all of which results in a sense of danger and insecurity (including the possibility of abandonment). Immature, anxiety-prone young children thus associate being good with being safe and secure, and being bad with anxiety, insecurity, and the prospect of abandonment.

Socialization also entails young children becoming intimately acquainted, implicitly and explicitly, with the language, traditions, and beliefs of their culture. Children learn about the culture’s history and major cultural icons in religion, politics, commerce, and entertainment. They become familiar with the culture’s heroes and the villains, and with the notion that good things generally happen to good people. If they are American children, they visit cultural landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial, see Santa at the mall before Christmas, and watch parades on Thanksgiving and fireworks on Independence Day; their physical surroundings serve to corroborate, and fortify faith in, the culture’s depiction of reality. Children learn about various social roles in the culture, especially those they already inhabit and that they are likely to inhabit in the future, along with normative standards of conduct associated with them.

During this time, children also become increasingly aware of, and afraid of death (Anthony, 1972). At first death seems like a reversible state, like a nap, which is awoken from, or a wilted plant, which is resuscitated by rain. Thereafter, death seems avoidable through the magical intercession of gods, heroic figures, or one’s seemingly larger-than-life parents. Eventually, however, children grasp that their parents are both fallible and finite, and that the Grim Reaper will ultimately come calling for them as well. This realization instigates a transference of psychological allegiance from the parents to the culture at large. Garnering self-esteem by meeting the standards associated with one’s social role in the context of one’s culture now confers the same feelings of safety and security formerly obtained by parental affection, while low self-esteem resulting from falling short of cultural standards produces the same anxiety, insecurity, and dread of abandonment that was engendered by a lack of parental approbation in infancy.

This is how cultural worldviews come to serve as bulwarks against potentially overwhelming terror, by affording existential meaning as a basis for self-esteem in pursuit of death transcendence.

All cultural worldviews are arbitrary, “as-if” religious fictions. Arbitrary in the sense that there is more than one way to apprehend the universe, just as there is more than one word that can refer to a cat. “As-if” in the sense that, despite the arbitrary nature of cultural worldviews, the average enculturated individual perceives their cultural worldview as an absolute representation of reality. Religious in the sense that all cultural worldviews are ultimately based on unverifiable (if not downright dubious) assumptions maintained by faith, undergirded by a dollop of magical thinking and bolstered by social consensus, in the service of death denial. Some evangelical Christians eagerly await the “rapture,” the time when believers will be transported to Heaven while nonbelievers are left behind, and when life on earth will become as it is purported to be in Hell. Some secular humanists eagerly await the time when “their consciousness” can be uploaded to cyberspace and they can attain digital immortality. All cultural worldviews are ardent efforts to obscure the fact that we humans are, in the “grand scheme of things,” radically inconsequential carbon-based specks no more significant or enduring than cucumbers or co*ckroaches, thrust into an unfathomably large universe that is utterly indifferent to our fate.

The Death of Meaning

Embracing cultural worldviews and acquiring self-esteem in the context of them enables humans to function day to day with a fair degree of psychological equanimity. Managing existential terror in this fashion also, however, inevitably results in non-optimal, and occasionally tragic, personal and interpersonal consequences.

Personally, the relative freedom from existential anxiety obtained from effective terror management via adherence to culturally constructed worldviews skews perception and thereby restricts experience. Termites, tarantulas, and ants are culinary delicacies in some cultures, but a dreaded pestilence in need of extermination in others. hom*osexual proclivities are indicative of irredeemable depravity punishable by death in some cultures, but is completely acceptable and even highly regarded (sometimes as part of the “normal” transition from adolescence to adulthood) in others. Buxom women are ridiculed and ostracized in some cultures, but are viewed as voluptuous and beautiful in others. These are cultural mandates rather than biological imperatives. We are all, thus, to some extent, victims, as well as beneficiaries, of our cultural worldviews in that each of us is socialized to perceive the world and how to act in it in ways that radically diminish the range of possible experiences that might otherwise be attractive and available to us.

Psychological challenges also arise when self-esteem becomes difficult or impossible to acquire, or when existential meanings are destabilized or entirely obliterated. A middle-aged buxom woman in a culture that venerates youth and linguini-like physiques, or a hom*osexual in a culture that views this form of sexual expression as an unnatural perversion subject to divine retribution, will both likely suffer from a deficit of self-regard and consequently be riddled with anxiety. Faith in the cultural worldview can also be undermined by natural disasters, historical events, and personal assaults. It is difficult to sustain belief in cherished cultural precepts in the midst of a famine or in the aftermath of a tidal wave or earthquake; or, when indigenous beliefs are undercut by uninvited and unwelcome colonial intrusions; or, when one has been traumatized by physical or sexual abuse. Depending on individuals’ biological predispositions and personal predilections, juxtaposed with cultural and historical factors, chronic low self-esteem or loss of faith in the cultural worldview can result in depression, exacerbation of existing psychological disorders, religious or political conversions, zealous devotion to charismatic leaders committed to religious and political extremism, fanatic commitment to cults and fads, or determined efforts to stay “comfortably numb” in a shopping, television-watching, drugs- and alcohol-consuming, Facebook- and Instagram-scrolling, Snapchatting, Twittering stupor.

On an interpersonal level, to the extent that cultural worldviews serve to manage existential terror, the existence of other cultures with alternative belief systems (that also serve a terror management function for their constituents) is psychologically problematic. People raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God created the earth and all its inhabitants in six days; the Fulani of Nigeria believe that the universe originated from a giant drop of milk. These are mutually exclusive cosmological accounts; consequently, granting the validity of others’ beliefs undermines confidence in one’s own, and thereby risks exposing individuals to the very anxieties that their beliefs formerly mitigated. People typically denigrate and dehumanize those who do not share their beliefs, attempt to convince or compel them to dispose of their alien beliefs and adopt theirs instead, or demonize them as all-encompassing repositories of evil and then proceed to exterminate them accordingly. From this perspective, a substantial proportion of evil in the world stems from self-righteous religious and secular crusades to rid the world of evil (Becker, 1975).

Summary of Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory posits that the juxtaposition of a biological inclination toward self-preservation with sophisticated symbolic proclivities renders human beings explicitly aware of the inevitability, unpredictability, and uncontrollability of death. This realization causes potentially unbearable terror that is managed by perceiving that one is a valued contributor to a meaningful reality. Cultural worldviews provide existential meaning through an account of the origin of the universe, through prescriptions for appropriate conduct as a function of specific social roles, and through promises of literal and symbolic immortality to those deemed of value. Self-esteem, the perception that one is a person of value in a world of meaning, thus provides a sense that some aspect of self endures beyond physical death. Humans are therefore highly motivated to maintain faith in their cultural worldviews and confidence in their self-worth in order to ward off existential terror or despair: “People die and murder, nurture and protect, go to any extreme, in behalf of their conception of the real . . . This is the domain of meaning making, without which human beings in every culture fall into terror” (Bruner, 1996, p. xv).

Existential Meaning and Terror Management (2024)
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