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Let’s talk about death

According to a new book, the fear of mortality underlies everything we do

By Jonathan Derbyshire  

“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”

—Ernest Becker

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. 

JD: As you show in very rich detail in the book, the attempt to reach an accommodation with death or the fact of mortality has taken different forms through history—religious, artistic, philosophical and so on. You talk about cultural modes of transcending death through the making or production of something enduring—something that last beyond the death of its maker. It seems to me that what you’re trying to do is to place that cultural grappling with mortality on a scientific footing.

SS: That captures our sense of what our enterprise consists in. There are longstanding ideas about the centrality of death anxiety as the motivational underpinning of human behaviour. Ernest Becker wins a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his book The Denial of Death, where he says all he’s doing is connecting different strands of thought that have been around in the intellectual mist for aeons. Although he won a Pulitzer for that work, he was not taken very seriously by academic psychologists, at least in North America, on the grounds that [his work] was philosophical speculation—interesting perhaps, but not able to be tested and therefore scientific. I think our small contribution to this enterprise, when we were young and ambitious 30 years ago, was to say, “It’s not clear to us why you can’t figure out ways to test [those ideas].” We’ve accumulated what I think is an impressive body of evidence that is in accord with the basic contention that concerns about death have a lot to do with a lot of aspects of human behaviour.

Becker is the tutelary influence on this book isn’t he? It begins and ends with you invoking Becker and the example he set. Referring to Becker in your own work in the mid-Eighties got you into trouble with your professional colleagues, as we’ve seen. Why was that? 

Becker in the 1980s, in our circles, was not taken seriously on the grounds that there was no “scientific” evidence [for his theories]. When we first started talking about these ideas in the 1980s, psychologists said, “This is shocking nonsense. There is no way you can test these ideas. And by the way, we never think about dying. Therefore the ideas must be wrong.” On the other hand, there were philosophers, English professors, even theologians, who said, “Oh yes, of course. We’re aware of these ideas. We think they’re very powerful. But no amount of empirical evidence you generate will sway us one way or the other.”

Presumably Becker’s influence on this book shows up in your insistence on taking human culture seriously. That’s to say, your insistence on seeing human beings as meaning-making creatures and not just as, you put it at one point, “generic creatures barraged by a continuous stream of sensations, emotions and events…”

Absolutely. While in no way denying that human beings are pieces of biological protoplasm subject to the same laws of nature and evolution as all other living entities, we also argue that, by virtue of self-awareness and the capacity to anticipate the future as well as ponder the past, we are aware of our finitude and our vulnerability to death. [We argue] that this is the psychological impetus for the formation and maintenance of culture as a way to minimise death anxiety by giving us opportunities to think that we’re individuals of value in a world of meaning. So yes, we do emphasise that humans are fundamentally cultural animals. But we see no antagonism between that perspective and an evolutionary view of humankind. We see them as compatible.

You tell a developmental story in the early parts of the book in which children’s discovery of the fact of mortality is decisive in the moulding of selfhood. What’s the connection, in that developmental story, between the kind of self-awareness that makes human beings distinctive compared to other creatures and what you call “death awareness”?

In this regard, we are borrowing heavily from other sources—[including] a British psychologist, Sylvia Anthony, who wrote a wonderful book about how children discover death, and then there’s Irvin Yalom, and his book Existential Psychotherapy. What we learned from Anthony, Yalom and from existential psychotherapy was that kids are aware of and concerned about death a lot earlier than most parents and most clinicians believe. Anywhere between as early as two years old and as late as, say, five or six, little children become aware of death. It’s not a welcome realisation. They go through incredible gyrations, that carry on into adulthood, to try and distract themselves from the idea that they will some day die.

When a child becomes explicitly aware that someday he or she will die—and usually that’s at the same time that he or she realises his or her parents are finite and fallible—what happens is he or she become just as concerned with how he or she is viewed by the culture at large. And this is what we refer to “self-esteem”: the belief that you’re a person of value in a world of meaning. That starts with thinking that you’re a good person in the eyes of your parents, but the awareness of death sparks a transition to embracing the culture.

In the book you talk about the embracing of “world views”. You acknowledge that there are good versions of that and less good, pathological ones. Presumably the good version involves the acknowledgment of something you just alluded to—human fallibility. So to acknowledge the fact of death is to acknowledge that human beings are fallible—and that’s an important aspect of psychic wellbeing.

Yes. But, as we also try to point out in the book, psychologically that is a cultural hard place. Our argument is that some people are naturally, or because of moments of historical crisis or upheaval, attracted to dogmatic and often ideological worldviews which offer unequivocal distinctions between good and evil, along with absolute assurance of some form of immortality, either literal or symbolic. While we understand the allure of such worldviews—and these need not be religious, by the way; you can be just as dogmatic and ideological with regard to political or economic principles—we regard them as non-optimal.

Let’s stick for a moment with what you just called, with winning understatement, “non-optimal” worldviews. You say at one point in the book that there is “nothing new under the sun”. I took that to mean that human beings have been humiliating one another since time immemorial. Does it follow, then, that the propensity to violence and the attraction to those non-optimal worldviews is a permanent feature of human nature?

I fear so. I wish I could be more cheerfully optimistic…

How does your analysis compare with Steven Pinker’s decidedly optimistic account of declining rates of human violence?

I find Steven Pinker’s view to be naively optimistic. As do other folks. There are two ideas in Pinker’s work on violence: one is that things have never been safer for most of the people on earth. And I agree with that. On the other hand, I’m not sure I agree with the claim that the Holocaust and the Second World War were blips on the inexorable road to progress. In fairness, I agree with Pinker that things get better as people are better educated and women get more opportunity, and that this is more likely to happen in functional democracies. But I do think that Pinker confuses or conflates democracy with laissez faire capitalism. As for the idea, which Pinker professes, that free trade in and of itself will make the world a better place—I’m highly sceptical.

You touched earlier on the notion of self-esteem. Could you expand on the role it plays in your analysis? It’s clearly central to it.

In Ernest Becker’s first book, The Birth and Death of Meaning, he argues that self-esteem is the dominant human motive. He takes that idea from William James, for whom self-esteem was so important that he put it up right up there with basic biological emotions like fear and anger. What Becker said is that because we are symbolic animals, because our view of the world is suffused with symbols, we don’t see the world directly. And so in order to be able to get up in the morning and to function, we need a blueprint for reality with associated standards of appropriate conduct. Otherwise, we’d be paralysed by indecision. That’s what culture is—a symbol system that provides opportunities for, in James’s words, each of us to feel like we’re “heroic”. Becker wanted to explain why self-esteem is so important. That’s when he starts to move towards the position that we adopt, which is that self-esteem is a culturally constructed psychological mechanism that mitigates death anxiety by giving us a sense that life is meaningful and that we have value.

You’re talking there about psychic wellbeing. But in your view, death anxiety is also implicated in a range of psychological disorders—from schizophrenia to obsessive compulsive disorder. Now, a critic might say that there’s a danger here that death anxiety becomes a kind of universal acid in which all differences and distinctions are dissolved.

There’s always a danger of overreach in any way of thinking about people that appears to be monolithic or uni-dimensional. But our argument is not so much that fear of death explains everything, as it is that unless we consider the role of death fears in human affairs we will explain or understand nothing.

Let’s deal with the specifics of one kind of disorder—schizophrenia, for example. What’s going wrong in the case of a schizophrenic with his or her ability to face up to death?

The prevailing approach to psychological disorders is to see them as manifestations of particular kinds of biochemical imbalances or neuro-anatomical abonormalities. We don’t dispute that. But what we’re saying is that there are phenomenological correlates of those biological underpinnings. Schizophrenics are either unable or unwilling to confidently embrace a socially constructed view of the world that gives them a sense of meaning and value. So they’re thrust, psychologically speaking, on themselves and end up cultivating, and going to extraordinary lengths to maintain, their own idiosyncratic conceptions of reality. It’s not irrelevant that a lot of the delusions and hallucinations of schizophrenics are of grandeur and omnipotence. The problem is that there’s no social consensus for those beliefs.

You referred just now to the “phenomenological” correlates of neurological disorders. I’m assuming that’s part of the language of existential psychotherapy, which you pay close attention to in the book. What’s distinctive in your view about the existential approach?

The existential psychotherapists say that [their approach] is not intended to replace other psychotherapeutic methods, but to complement them. There are two things that existential psychotherapy brings to the therapeutic relationship: one is to emphasise the character of the relationship between the therapist and the person who desires to change. The existentialists point out that we’re fundamentally social creatures, meaning-making entities, and that therefore any therapeutic undertaking will be best accomplished with a therapist who has a genuine concern for the character of their interaction with the person being analysed. The second thing that distinguishes existential psychotherapists is that they work with individuals based on the assumption that we’re all going to have universal existential concerns—whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re going to be concerned with death.

“The Worm at the Core” is published by Allen Lane (£20)

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