© 2020 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

We're All Gonna Die! How Fear Of Death Drives Our Behavior

Our fear of death affects us more than we think.

Many people tend to push frightening realities out of mind rather than face them head-on. That's especially true when it comes to the terrifying event that no one can escape — death. Psychologist Sheldon Solomon says people may suppress conscious thoughts about their mortality, but unconscious ones still seep through.

In the book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, Solomon, along with psychologists Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, illustrate how death anxiety influences people's behavior in ways they would never suspect. The fear of death is so overwhelming, they say, that people go to great lengths to seek security; they embrace belief systems that give them a sense of meaning — religion, values, community.

Through decades of studies, Solomon and his colleagues have shown that people suppress their fear of mortality by supporting those who are similar to themselves. "If somebody does something that's in accord with your belief system, then being reminded of death should make you like them more so," Solomon says.

People don't just respond by clinging to their in-group. They act in ways that make them feel better about themselves, whether that's demonstrating their physical prowess or buying status goods. In short, Solomon says, "we shore up our self-esteem in response to existential anxieties."

This week on Hidden Brain, we learn how the specter of death hovers in the background, shaping everything from the risks we take to the politicians we elect.

Additional resources

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, 2015

The Birth and Death of Meaning, by Ernest Becker, 1971

The Denial of Death ,by Ernest Becker, 1973

These articles describe how death reminders influence the following behaviors and preferences:

Bond recommendations by municipal court judges

Germans' preference for German vs. non-German items

Reckless driving

Tanning habits

Support for charismatic politicians

Desire to harm someone who doesn't share your beliefs

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 7, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier version of this podcast, guest Sheldon Solomon said that German funeral parlors often have embalmed corpses in their windows. Solomon says that he misspoke, and meant to say that the funeral parlor in which he conducted a study had an urn in the window, not a corpse.