I’m currently working on a project and stumbled upon a bit of information I find fascinating.
Terror Management Theory attempts to describe a significant motivator behind human action. It arouse from various academic traditions but is mostly familiar to students of social psychology. The basic thesis is that as humans our primary biological imperative, aside from passing on our genetic material, is to stay alive. And as everyone knows, there are countless unforeseen circumstances in which our existence can come to an abrupt end. It is precisely this which most likely differentiates us from other animals, our awareness of our impending death. I say “most likely differentiates us from other animals” because this has not been entirely proven true. What can be confirmed experientially however, is the overwhelming anxiety generated from this awareness of death.
Otto Rank, Norman Brown, and Ernst Becker posited that humans, ingeniously but unconsciously solved this dilemma by developing cultural world views: “commonly held beliefs about reality that serve to reduce the potentially overwhelming terror resulting from the awareness of death”. All cultures provide meaning by offering a creation myth, a blue print for acceptable behavior on earth, and a promise of immortality either symbolically or literally. Individuals thus become participants in a world of meaning and gain emotional stability in the face of death.
As readers of this blog may know: “All cultural world views are ultimately shared fictions, in the sense that none of them is likely to be literally true, and their existence is generally sustained by social consensus. When everyone around us believes the same thing we can be confident of the voracity of our beliefs”. Good old social proof.
This may not be entirely news for many but the following was certainly something I somewhat knew but never considered in its entirety. “When we encounter people with different beliefs, this poses a challenge to our death-denying belief system, which is why people are generally quite uncomfortable around (and hostile toward) those who are different.” Religious and political conflicts may be much more than disagreements on how one should live their life and more a coping mechanism for death anxiety. Suddenly the state of the world gains a whole new dimension.
“Additionally, because no symbolic cultural construction can actually overcome the physical reality of death, residual anxiety is unconsciously projected unto such groups as individuals, designating them as scapegoats: all encompassing repositories of evil, the eradication of which would make earth as it is in heaven. We therefore typically respond to people with different beliefs by berating them, trying to convert them to our system of beliefs, or just killing them and in so doing asserting that “my God (or political-economic system) is better than ours and we’ll kick your ass to prove it.”
Quotations from Psychology and Consumer Culture