Mortality salience (& the Terror Management Theory)

Mortality salience (& the Terror Management Theory)

In this article, we wrote a short guide on mortality salience and the Terror Management Theory. We will explain how mortality salience makes one think and act differently, and what is the link between Terror Management Theory and aggressive behaviour. 

What does mortality salience mean?

Mortality salience is a term derived from the Terror Management Theory, and it means the awareness of one’s inevitable death.  From the Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski & Solomon, 1986) it is considered that all behaviour is motivated or conditioned by the fear caused by the idea of our mortality, generating high anxiety as this idea is confronted with the desire for survival inherent in every living being. 

The way to reduce these levels of anxiety is done through a series of cognitive mechanisms that allow the control of thought and that since TMT has been called proximal and distal defences (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999).

Mortality salience (& the Terror Management Theory)

In more colloquial terms, the concept of mortality salience suggests that people know that they will die sooner or later, being something that causes them high rejection and anxiety, so they will occupy their time with activities that prevent them from thinking about this idea. 

However, the events of our life may activate this idea at some point (eg, an accident, a terrorist attack, the news of murder) and that is when people are most forceful and aggressive in the face to the stimuli that caused mortality salience. 

Mortality consciousness would be unique to humans, firstly because there is no evidence that it exists in other species, and secondly because to generate this type of consciousness requires the ability to plan future behaviour, any aspect related to structures such as the prefrontal cortex, which is highly developed in humans (Gordillo and Mestas, 2015). 

Do not confuse mortality salience with grief, which does seem to be present in different species (King, 2013); however, grief should not in itself imply an awareness of one’s mortality. This does not exclude the possibility that this type of consciousness is situated on a continuum and some species manifest it at levels closer to humans than others.

People with mortality salience might experience a forewarning effect.

The Terror Management Theory

Once the idea of mortality was activated, and according to the TMT,  proximal defences begin when thoughts about death enter consciousness, which has been called mortality salience. 

These first defences are rational and allow us to extract these thoughts from the mind by diverting attention, limiting focused attention on ourselves or minimizing our vulnerability to death. 

For example, enhancing thoughts about our longevity (eg, “My grandparents lived many years”), or generating intentions about healthy behaviours (eg, “Starting tomorrow I start running every day”).

Although proximal defences draw these thoughts out of consciousness, they remain very accessible unconsciously. For this reason, and after sometime after the start of the proximal defences, the distal defences begin, which keep thoughts of mortality away for a longer time (Martí, 2014). 

These defences use culture to give meaning to life (eg, religion, politics), and also self-esteem, as the social group makes us feel special and necessary as long as we adjust to prevailing cultural values.

Mortality salience (& the Terror Management Theory)

The fear of death and aggression

From the perspective of TMT, a close relationship is established between aggression and fear of death, which has been evidenced in different studies. 

When the vision of the world is threatened by an approach contrary to that of our own culture, the proper functioning of the distal defence mechanisms would be impeded and therefore the levels of anxiety would not be lowered. 

In this situation, the reaction is aggressiveness and rational forcefulness against that cultural system that prevents the implementation of the distal defences. 

The point is that fear of death, of the unknown, could lead to criminal behaviours that arise from defending group identity against contrary approaches. 

On this idea, current conflicts come to our minds such as the jihadist threat, or something more local like the war between gangs, where the defence of some ideals prevails against others that are contrary, and that would not be more, according to the TMT, that an answer to the need to reduce the fear of mortality itself defending the ideas of the group.

In the field of criminology, some theories have integrated the approach to terror management, such as the General Theory of Frustration (Agnew, 1980), where the aim is to substantiate the relationship between crime and tension, understanding that criminal behaviours can arise from the emotions that are awakened after the death threat (Ursan, 2015). 

That is, by not being able to achieve what is desired, what prevents it is contrary to its ideals (it prevents distal defences according to the TMT), giving rise to anger and frustration, which could lead to punctual criminal acts or permanent criminal behaviour. 

Mortality salience (& the Terror Management Theory)

Mortality salience and criminal behaviour

Among the main sources in the generation of tension are:  1) the difficulty of achieving the goals; 2) deprivation of acquired achievements; 3) the imposition of negative situations from which it is very difficult to escape

This perspective places criminal aetiology in context as a very important part when explaining the origin of crime, without excluding that other internal aspects, such as personality or mental pathology, can intervene and interact.

This approach undoubtedly has many implications. 

Firstly, regarding the aetiology of the crime itself and the means to avoid it. As long as it is possible to modify the context in which the human being develops, crime rates could be reduced. Increasing levels of security in society entail direct and consistent access to proximal and distal defences, which will reduce levels of anxiety and aggressiveness.

On the other hand, and already within the judicial context, the jury can see the accused as the origin of his mortality salience, being then the object of aggressiveness that restores the lost security. 

If this happens, decisions highly affected by the negative emotionality of those who make them with a greater risk of making mistakes may be generated, especially if we take into account that to generate a goal that causes our insecurity, a simple piece of news would suffice.

As a conclusion 

There is no doubt that “terror management” is not something that has gone unnoticed when it comes to manipulating others. Activating the fear of death (mortality salience)  in society generates high levels of anxiety that cannot be reduced if the security and social standards of our culture are undermined while reducing the self-esteem of citizens.

We can say by way of conclusion that when “they force us” to think about mortality salience, a series of defensive responses are initiated that try to reaffirm our own culture and self-esteem. 

However, these defences often involve contempt for other beliefs that could lead to prejudice, discrimination, and also aggression. This sounds a lot like what is currently happening in the international arena, with the terrorist threat, with the consequent discrimination of “the different” who are now refugees. 

In short, on many occasions, the prejudices and conflicts between groups can be understood from the TMT, from natural and inherent processes to the human being, whose knowledge would help us to remedy many of the social injustices that occur in our time.

If you have any questions or comments on the content, please let us know!

Mortality salience (& the Terror Management Theory)

FAQ about Mortality Salience 

What is the mortality salience hypothesis?

The mortality salience hypothesis suggests that people know that they will die sooner or later, being something that causes them high rejection and anxiety, so they will occupy their time with activities that prevent them from thinking about this idea. 

What is terror management theory in psychology?

In psychology, according to the Terror management theory, it is considered that all behaviour is motivated or conditioned by the fear caused by the idea of our mortality, generating high anxiety as this idea is confronted with the desire for survival inherent in every living being. 

What’s the meaning of mortality?

The meaning of mortality is the truth about our mortal character and existence, it is the condition of being subject to death.  

What can mortality salience lead to?

Mortality salience can oftentimes lead to a sense of discovering the meaning of one’s life. The concept of mortality salience suggests that people know that they will die sooner or later, being something that causes them high rejection and anxiety, so they will occupy their time with activities that prevent them from thinking about this idea. 

Does the fear of death decrease with age?

Yes, fear of death decreases with age, according to several studies. After a peak in their 20s, participants’ death anxiety tended to decline with age.

Further Reading

Mortality Salience, by Don Reightley

Terror Management Theory: What role do Cultural World Views play in the cause and prevention of terrorism? by Roman Prinz 

Terror Management and the Christian Belief System: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Security of Salvation, by Nolan Rampy

Self- and Identity-Regulation and Health (Special Issues of Self and Identity), by James A. Shepherd

Religion, Personality, and Social Behavior, by Vassilis Saroglou 

References

Breakwell, G. (1993). Social representations and social identity. Papers on Social Representations, 2 (3), 1-217. 

Dunbar, R. (2007). The Odyssey of Humanity: A New Story of the Evolution of Man. 

Erikson, E. (1979). Psychosocial identity. In D. L. Sills (Ed.) International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (vol. 5. pp. 586-591). 

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5 (2), 100-122.

Stets, J. & Burke, P. (2000). Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 63 (3), 224-237.

Mortality salience (& the Terror Management Theory)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.