According to a new book, the fear of mortality underlies everything we doby Jonathan Derbyshire / June 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
In the mid-1980s, three young American psychologists—Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski—delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the Society of Experimental Psychology. Their subject was “terror management theory,” a notion they’d developed from their deep and enthusiastic study of a book that had won a Pulitzer Prize a decade before: Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death”. They were building on Becker’s claim that “people strive for meaningful and significant lives largely to manage the fear of death.”
The paper didn’t go down very well. As Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski recall in the introduction to their new book, “The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life“, the audience “started drifting away as soon as we mentioned that our theory was influenced by social anthropology, existential philosophy, and psychoanalysis”—approaches disdained by most of their empirically-minded colleagues in the psychology profession. Undaunted, the three men stuck at it, convinced that the insights of these disciplines could illuminate, rather than obscure, the findings of empirical psychology. Today, they write, “terror management theory is widely studied by psychological scientists and scholars in other disciplines as well, yielding an array of findings that go well beyond what Becker could ever have envisioned.”
“The Worm at the Core” aims to make those findings accessible to the general reader. I spoke to Sheldon Solomon recently on the phone from the United States, where he is a professor of psychology at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.