Terror Management Theory

What Is Terror Management Theory?

Terror management theory (TMT) attempts to explain a type of defensive human thinking and behavior that stems from an awareness and fear of death. According to TMT, death anxiety drives people to adopt worldviews that protect their sense of self-esteem, worthiness, and sustainability and allow them to believe that they play an important role in a meaningful world. Human survival instincts, and the need to reinforce cultural significance in the face of death, often result in displays of prejudice, or the belief that the group with which one identifies is superior to other groups. In this way, people confirm their self-importance and insulate themselves from their deep fear of merely living an insignificant life permanently eradicated by death. TMT proposes that individuals are motivated to develop close relationships within their own cultural group in order to feel immortal, to convince themselves that they will somehow live on—if only symbolically—after their inevitable death.

The Fear of Death

Terror management theory was developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski and expanded in their 2015 book, The Worm at the Core. The concept derives from the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker, whose 1973 book, The Denial of Death, argued that the majority of human actions are undertaken primarily as a means to ignore or evade death. Most psychologists consider TMT to be a sort of evolutionary trait; humans naturally became aware of dangerous things as a means of continuing their gene pool. The deep existential anxiety that comes with that knowledge is an unfortunate byproduct of this evolutionary advantage.


Fear, Anxiety, Evolutionary Psychology

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