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On the Compatibility of Terror Management Theory and Perspectives on Human Evolution

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Terror management theory (TMT) posits that the uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to a potential for debilitating terror, which is averted by the construction and maintenance of cultural worldviews. Over 300 studies have supported hypotheses derived from TMT. In a recent critique of TMT, Navarrete and Fessler (2005) argued that TMT is inconsistent with contemporary evolutionary biology and that the evidence supporting TMT can be better accounted for by an alternative “coalitional psychology” (CP), which posits a domain general mechanism whereby a wide range of adaptive threats activate an even wider range of judgments and behaviors all directed toward sustaining unspecified coalitions. In this paper, we argue that: a) Navarrete and Fessler do not adequately present either TMT or the empirical evidence in support of it; b) TMT is in no way inconsistent with modern evolutionary biology; and c) CP is not theoretically plausible and cannot provide a convincing empirical account of evidence supporting TMT. The broader goal of this paper is to encourage evolutionary theorists to move beyond overly simplistic alternatives that target superficial portrayals of TMT and the evidence supporting it, and contribute to a more useful integration of TMT and its findings with evolutionary thinking about culture and human social behavior.
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Evolutionary Psychology
www.epjournal.net – 2007. 5(3): 476-519
¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯

Original Article/Commentary
On the Compatibility of Terror Management Theory and Perspectives on
Human Evolution
Mark J. Landau, Department of Psychology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 66045, USA Email:
mjlandau@ku.edu (Corresponding author)
Sheldon Solomon, Department of Psychology, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, 12866, USA Email:
ssolomon@skidmore.edu
Tom Pyszczynski, Department of Psychology, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, CO, 80919, USA
Email: tpyszczy@brain.uccs.edu
Jeff Greenberg, Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 85721, USA Email:
jeff@email.arizona.edu
Abstract: Terror management theory (TMT) posits that the uniquely human awareness of
death gives rise to a potential for debilitating terror, which is averted by the construction
and maintenance of cultural worldviews. Over 300 studies have supported hypotheses
derived from TMT. In a recent critique of TMT, Navarrete and Fessler (2005) argued that
TMT is inconsistent with contemporary evolutionary biology and that the evidence
supporting TMT can be better accounted for by an alternative “coalitional psychology”
(CP), which posits a domain general mechanism whereby a wide range of adaptive threats
activate an even wider range of judgments and behaviors all directed toward sustaining
unspecified coalitions. In this paper, we argue that: a) Navarrete and Fessler do not
adequately present either TMT or the empirical evidence in support of it; b) TMT is in no
way inconsistent with modern evolutionary biology; and c) CP is not theoretically plausible
and cannot provide a convincing empirical account of evidence supporting TMT. The
broader goal of this paper is to encourage evolutionary theorists to move beyond overly
simplistic alternatives that target superficial portrayals of TMT and the evidence supporting
it, and contribute to a more useful integration of TMT and its findings with evolutionary
thinking about culture and human social behavior.
Keywords: terror management theory, coalitional psychology, evolution, culture,
mortality, evolutionary psychology
¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯



Terror management and evolution
Introduction

In every calm and reasonable person there is hidden a second person scared
witless about death.

Philip Roth, The Dying Animal (2001, p. 153).

Terror management theory (TMT; see Greenberg, Pyszczynski, and Solomon, 1986;
Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, 1991), inspired by the work of Ernest Becker
(1971; 1973; 1975), was developed to provide a functional account of the role of culture
and self-esteem in human affairs. From the very beginning, we have viewed TMT as rooted
in the principles of Darwin’s (1859) theory of evolution by natural selection and believed
that the two perspectives are immanently compatible and provide complementary insights
into the origins and contemporary functioning of humankind. However, in their recent
paper “Normative Bias and Adaptive Challenges…,” Navarrete and Fessler (2005) argued
that TMT is out of step with modern evolutionary theory, that the body of empirical
evidence associated with TMT does not provide strong empirical support, and that an
alternative account of allegiance to cultural worldviews based on their coalitional
psychology (CP) offers a more useful perspective. We found their critique wide-ranging
but misguided in many respects. Moreover, the CP perspective is not theoretically coherent
or plausible, and it cannot account for the large body of empirical evidence supporting
TMT. In the present paper we provide a brief overview of TMT and the research supporting
it, respond to Navarrete and Fessler’s criticisms of this work, critique their alternative CP
account of allegiance to cultural worldviews, and consider how an integrated consideration
of both existential psychological and evolutionary factors can lead to a richer understanding
of human cognition and behavior.

Terror Management Theory
In line with Ernest Becker’s theorizing, TMT starts with Darwin’s (1859) insight
that human beings, like all other living species, are biologically predisposed in many ways
toward continued life, but that more so than other species, humans adapt to their
environment and prosper largely by virtue of highly developed cognitive abilities, including
the capacities for abstract, symbolic, temporally extended, and self-reflective thought 1.
Presumably these capacities conferred a significant advantage for humans in terms of
flexible and innovative behaviors suited to their physical and social surroundings.
This cognitive sophistication, however, had some problematic consequences.
Following thinkers in the existentialist and psychoanalytic traditions (e.g., Brown, 1959;
Freud, 1937/1965; Kierkegaard, 1844/1959; Rank, 1930/1998; Zilboorg, 1943), Becker
observed that humans’ symbolic understanding of the world and explicit self-awareness
enabled them to recognize that, even in the absence of immediate danger, life will
inevitably end, and that death can occur at any time for reasons that often cannot be
anticipated or controlled. This awareness of the inevitability of one’s own death conflicts
with the desire for continued life and engenders an ever-present potential to experience
severe anxiety.
According to Becker, humans avoid a continual fearful confrontation with the fact
of their mortality by denying that their physical death ends in absolute annihilation. This is
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Terror management and evolution
accomplished, in part, through the collective construction and maintenance of cultural
worldviews: widely shared beliefs about the nature of reality that imbue life with meaning
and order and provide the opportunity for some form of death transcendence to those who
uphold cultural standards of value. By perceiving themselves as valuable contributors to a
meaningful world (i.e., by maintaining self-esteem), people can avoid viewing themselves
as merely material animals fated only to obliteration upon death; instead they can view
themselves as enduring, significant beings who will continue on past physical death, either
literally through some form of afterlife (e.g., heaven, reincarnation, nirvana), or
symbolically through enduring accomplishments and being part of larger enduring
collectives (see Lifton, 1979, for an extended discussion of different modes of literal and
symbolic immortality). Following this line of thought, TMT thus posits that humankind
manages the potential terror (hence the term terror management) resulting from awareness
of the inevitability of death by maintaining faith in a cultural worldview and procuring self-
esteem by living up to the standards of value prescribed by that worldview.
Because both worldviews and self-esteem are symbolic constructions rather than
absolute representations of reality, confidence in them, and hence effective mitigation of
anxiety, requires ongoing consensual validation from others. Those who share one’s
worldview and agree that one is meeting or exceeding cultural standards of value
strengthen these psychological structures and increase their effectiveness as shields against
existential terror; those who view the world or oneself differently undermine these
structures and their effectiveness as anxiety-buffers.

Empirical Evidence

Empirical support for TMT comes from over 300 separate experiments conducted
by independent researchers in at least 15 different countries, including samples from
collectivistic cultures like Japan (Heine, Harihara, and Niiya, 2002), Iran (Pyszczynski, et
al., 2006), and Aboriginal Australia (Halloran and Kashima, 2004). The work has
supported hypotheses concerning a diverse range of domains of human behavior, including
prejudice, self-esteem striving, social judgment, creativity, health, sex and other bodily
activities, aggression, altruism, risk-taking, justice, nationalism, religiosity, politics,
aesthetic preferences, and close relationships. Because Navarrete and Fessler acknowledge
only a highly selective subset of this evidence, we will provide a brief overview
summarizing the major findings of TMT research (for more comprehensive recent reviews
of this literature, see Greenberg, Solomon, and Arndt, in press; Pyszczynski, Solomon, and
Greenberg, 2003; Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, 2004).

Mortality Salience Increases Cultural Worldview Defense and Self-Esteem Striving
The mortality salience hypothesis states that if cultural worldviews and self-esteem
function to provide protection against death-related concerns, then heightening the salience
of mortality (mortality salience; MS) should intensify commitment to, and defense of, these
psychological structures. A growing body of research, to date consisting of over 200
separate experiments, provides support for specific instantiations of this broad hypothesis.
These studies have used a variety of operationalizations of MS, such as open-ended items
designed to focus thoughts on one’s own death (e.g., Rosenblat, Greenberg, Solomon,
Pyszczynski, and Lyon, 1989), completing a death anxiety scale, writing a single sentence
about death (e.g., Dechesne et al., 2003) exposure to subliminal death-related stimuli (e.g.,
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Terror management and evolution
Arndt, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, and Solomon, 1997a), or interviews in front of funeral
home or cemetery (e.g., Pyszczynski, Wicklund, et al., 1996).

Early research tested hypotheses based on the notion that MS should result in
worldview defense, or a heightened agreement with and affection for those who uphold or
share one’s beliefs (or are similar to oneself and group) and equally vigorous disagreement
with and disdain for those who challenge or do not share one’s beliefs (i.e., are different
from oneself and group). In a typical study, participants receive a MS manipulation
embedded in a packet of questionnaires purportedly designed to assess personality and
interpersonal judgments. Specifically, participants in the MS condition are asked to respond
to the following open-ended questions: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the
thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what
you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.”
Participants in control conditions complete parallel questions about another topic. Although
participants in initial studies were led to consider benign topics such as watching television,
subsequent research has utilized a variety of aversive control topics, including thoughts of
intense pain, paralysis, losing a limb in an accident, social exclusion, worries about life
after college, giving a speech, failing an exam, uncertainty, and imagining the death of a
loved one. Afterwards, participants rated target individuals who upheld or violated
cherished aspects of participants’ worldviews.

For example, Greenberg et al. (1990, Study 1) had Christian participants evaluate
Christian and Jewish targets (very similar demographically except for religious affiliation)
after a MS or control induction. Although there were no differences in evaluation of the
targets in the control condition, mortality salient participants exhibited a greater fondness
for the Christian target and more adverse reactions to the Jewish target. An additional study
replicated and extended this finding by showing that after a MS induction, American
participants showed increased affection for an essay and its American author praising the
United States and increased disdain for an anti-American essay and its American author.
Other research showed that MS leads to positive reactions to those who exemplify the
values of the worldview and negative reactions to those who violate them (e.g., Florian and
Mikulincer, 1997; Rosenblatt et al., 1989). This work also demonstrated that MS effects are
not the result of subjective anxiety or negative mood; specifically, asking participants to
ponder their demise does not typically engender negative affect or self-reported anxiety,
and covarying out these variables does not eliminate MS effects. Rosenblatt et al. (1989)
also demonstrated that MS effects are unmediated by self-awareness or physiological
arousal, and that they are quite precisely directed at worldview threatening or bolstering
targets (e.g., in Rosenblatt et al., Study 2, only participants morally opposed to prostitution
prescribed a higher bond for an alleged prostitute after a MS induction, and MS did not
adversely affect participants’ ratings of the experimenter, which one would predict if MS
effects were nonspecific in nature.
Behavioral effects of MS have been obtained in addition to the attitudinal effects
described above. For example, Greenberg, Simon, Porteus, Pyszczynski and Solomon
(1995) found that participants took longer and felt more uncomfortable using cherished
cultural icons in a blasphemous fashion (i.e., sifting colored dye through an American flag
and using a Crucifix as a hammer) after a MS induction. Also, Ochsmann and Mathy
(1994) showed that following a MS induction, German participants sat closer to a German
confederate and further away from a Turkish confederate. And H. McGregor et al. (1998)
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Terror management and evolution
demonstrated that MS increased physical aggression (assessed by the amount of hot sauce
administered to a fellow participant known to dislike spicy food in the context of a
supposed study of consumer taste preferences) toward those who attack one’s political
orientation.
There is also a good deal of empirical support for the hypothesis that MS increases
diverse efforts to enhance and protect self-esteem (see Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon,
Arndt, and Schimel, 2004 for a review of this research). For example, MS leads to
increased identification with the body among those who value the body as a source of self-
esteem (Goldenberg, McCoy, Pyszczynski, Greeenberg, and Solomon, 2000) and increased
group (e.g., ethnic) identification when such identification has positive implications for
self-esteem but also decreased group identification when such identification has negative
implications for self-esteem (Arndt, Greenberg, Schimel, Pyszczynski, and Solomon, 2002;
Dechesne, Janssen, and van Knippenberg, 2000). Similarly, Mikulincer and Florian (2002)
have found that MS increases self-serving attributions after a performance outcome. In
addition, MS has been found to boost efforts to live up to the standards of value from
which one’s self-esteem is derived, including risky driving behavior (both self-reported and
on a driving simulator; Taubman-Ben-Ari, Florian, and Mikulincer, 1999), fitness
intentions (Arndt, Schimel, and Goldenberg., 2003), displays of physical strength (Peters,
Greenberg, Williams and Schneider, 2005), and charitable donations (Jonas, Schimel,
Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, 2002) among those who value these domains as sources of
self-esteem. More recently, Landau and Greenberg (2006) found that MS leads high self-
esteem individuals faced with a risky, self-relevant decision to pursue opportunities for
excellence despite substantial risk of failure whereas mortality-salient low self-esteem
individuals become more risk-averse in an effort to protect their self-esteem.

Self-Esteem Provides a Buffer Against Anxiety

Research also supports the hypothesis that high levels of self-esteem reduce
proneness to anxiety in response to threats. In the initial test of this hypothesis, Greenberg,
et al. (1992) showed that boosting self-esteem with positive feedback on a personality test
led to lower levels of self-reported anxiety on the State Anxiety Inventory (Spielberger,
Gorsuch, and Lushene, 1970) in response to graphic video depictions of death. They also
showed that both positive personality feedback and success on a supposed test of
intelligence led to lower levels of physiological arousal (skin conductance) in response to
the threat of painful electric shock. Additional support for the anxiety-buffer hypothesis
was provided by Greenberg, Pyszczynski et al. (1993), who demonstrated that both
experimentally enhanced and dispositionally high self-esteem lead to lower levels of
cognitive distortions to deny one’s vulnerability to an early death. Specifically, whereas in
control conditions participants reported whatever level of emotionality (high or low) they
had been led to believe is associated with a long life expectancy, participants with
dispositionally high or experimentally enhanced self-esteem did not show this bias.

Bolstering One Aspect of the Anxiety-Buffer Reduces the Effect of MS on Defense of Other
Aspects of the Anxiety-Buffer

Research has also tested a combination of the MS and anxiety-buffer hypotheses: If
self-esteem and faith in a cultural worldview provide protection against death-related
concerns, then bolstering one of these components should reduce or eliminate the effects of
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Terror management and evolution
MS on clinging to other aspects of the anxiety-buffer. For example, Harmon-Jones et al.
(1997) demonstrated that participants with experimentally enhanced or dispositionally high
self-esteem do not exhibit the increased worldview defense typically found in response to
MS. Arndt and Greenberg (1999) replicated this finding and furthermore found that a self-
esteem boost did not eliminate MS-induced derogation of a worldview-threatening target if
that person attacked the domain upon which the prior self-esteem boost was based, further
demonstrating the dependence of self-esteem and its anxiety-buffering properties on faith
in one’s cultural worldview.

Belief in Literal Immortality Eliminates the Effect of MS on Self-Esteem Striving and
Worldview Defense

TMT posits that people fear death because, regardless of what they profess to
believe about the possibility of life after death, they are painfully aware of the possibility
that death might entail absolute annihilation. If this is the case, then increasing faith in the
existence of life after death (in TMT terms, literal immortality) should reduce or eliminate
the effect of MS on self-esteem striving and worldview defense. Dechesne et al. (2003)
tested this hypothesis in three experiments. In Studies 1 and 2, participants were given one
of two articles which supposedly summarized a recent scientific conference on the meaning
of the highly publicized “near death experience.” Half of the participants read an article
that argued that the near death experience was an artifact of the biological processes
involved in the shutting down of brain functioning; the other half read an article that argued
that the near death experience cannot be explained as the simple by-product of biological
processes and that this experience can be explained only by concluding that some form of
consciousness persists after biological death. After reading one of these articles,
participants were induced to think about either their own death or dental pain, and were
then given the same positive personality feedback that Dechesne, Janssen, and van
Knippenberg (2000) previously demonstrated is rated by participants as more credible after
MS. Although participants who read the article arguing that death is the absolute end of life
showed the same increased ratings of the validity of the positive personality feedback in
response to MS, those who read the article arguing that the near death experience provides
irrefutable evidence of an afterlife did not show an exaggerated regard for the personality
feedback. Study 3 replicated and extended these findings, showing that whereas priming
death in the absence of afterlife-confirming information led participants to judge moral
transgressions more harshly, this effect was eliminated when afterlife-confirming
information was primed prior to MS. This work shows that when literal immortality is
viewed as likely, the need for strengthening symbolic bases of death transcendence is
lessened.

Grave Matters Matter in a Wide Variety of Domains of Human Judgment and Behavior
In accord with Becker’s and TMT’s assertion that concerns about death affect a
substantial proportion of human activity, research has shown that in addition to
exacerbating concern with culturally specific sources of meaning, MS heightens more
general tendencies to seek and prefer clear and coherent interpretations of others and
events. For example, MS increases preference for information that bolsters the belief that
the world is just (Hirschberger, in press; Landau et al., 2004a), and decreases attraction to
individuals who act in inconsistent ways (Landau et al., 2004a) and artworks that seem
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Terror management and evolution
devoid of meaning (Landau, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski and Martens, 2006b). MS
also leads to negative reactions to threats to meaningful conceptions of time, and increases
perceived meaningfulness of one’s personal past and the continuity of one’s current self
with past and anticipated experience (Landau, Greenberg, Arndt, and Routledge, 2006a).
Furthermore, and consistent with hypotheses derived from TMT, reminders of death
increase: religious conviction (Jonas and Fischer, 2006), stereotyping (Schimel et al.,
1999), national identification (Castano, Yzerbyt, and Paladino, 2004), conformity to norms
(Jonas et al., 2006), guilt after creative activities (e.g., Arndt and Greenberg, 1999), desire
for expensive luxury goods (e.g., Kasser and Sheldon, 2000), desire for children (Wisman
and Goldenberg, 2005), structuring of nature (Koole and Van den Berg, 2005), and efforts
to be physically attractive (Routledge et al., 2004).
In addition, MS effects are moderated by a host of theoretically specified individual
difference variables including personal need for structure, self-esteem, authoritarianism, the
valuing of tolerance, neuroticism, attachment style, intrinsic religiosity, and investment in
specific bases of self-worth (see e.g., Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg and Solomon,
2000b; Greenberg, Solomon and Pyszczynski, 1997; Greenberg, Solomon and Arndt, in
press; Mikulincer, Florian, and Hirschberger, 2003).
A substantial line of research spearheaded by Jamie Goldenberg also shows how
reminders of death lead people to distance from ideas or activities that remind them that
they are animals. To avoid the recognition that they are merely material, finite creatures,
people invest in worldviews that elevate them to a spiritual or symbolic plane that
transcends the life and death fray of the animal world2. As examples of evidence supporting
this analysis, following MS, people high in neuroticism or reminded of their similarities to
other animals distance themselves from physical, but not romantic aspects of sex
(Goldenberg et al., 1999; Goldenberg, Cox, Pyszczynski, Greenberg and Solomon, 2002),
and avoid aversive and pleasurable physical sensations (Goldenberg, et al., 2006b), and are
more disgusted by reminders of their animal nature (Goldenberg, et al., 2001). In addition,
after MS, women are more reluctant to give themselves breast exams, and people are more
negative toward mothers breast-feeding in public (Goldenberg et al., 2006a). Furthermore,
MS leads men to distance from feelings of sexual attraction to sexually provocative, but not
“wholesome,” women, and MS combined with reminders of carnal lust increases tolerance
for physical aggression towards women (Landau et al., 2006c).

What’s Death Got to do With it? A Dual Process Model of Defense Against Conscious and
Nonconsious Death-Related Thoughts

As mentioned above, TMT research indicates that MS effects are specific to
thoughts of one’s own death; they are not elicited by other aversive stimuli, increased self-
focus, subjective arousal (self-report or physiological), the salience of cultural values, or
high cognitive load (Greenberg, et al., 1995). What then are the cognitive processes by
which conscious and unconscious awareness of death influence cultural worldview and
self-esteem defense? Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon (1999, p. 835) proposed a dual
process theory to explicate these processes:

Distinct defensive responses are activated by thoughts of death that are
conscious and those that are on the fringes of consciousness (highly
accessible but not in current focal attention). Proximal defenses entail the

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Terror management and evolution
suppression of death-related thoughts or pushing the problem of death into
the distant future by denying one’s vulnerability to various risk factors.
These defenses are rational, threat-focused, and are activated when
thoughts of death are in current conscious attention. Distal terror
management defenses entail maintaining self-esteem and faith in one’s
cultural worldview and serve to control the potential for anxiety resulting
from awareness of the inevitability of death. These defenses are
experiential, not related to the problem of death in any semantic or rational
way, and are increasingly activated as the accessibility of death-related
thoughts increases, up to the point at which such thoughts enter
consciousness and proximal threat-focused defenses are initiated.


In support of this dual process conception (see Figure 1 for a graphic depiction),
Greenberg, Arndt, Simon, Pyszczynski, and Solomon (2000) demonstrated that
immediately after a MS induction, people engage in proximal defenses (vulnerability-
denying defensive distortions) but do not show evidence of distal defense (exaggerated
regard and disdain for similar and dissimilar others respectively); and, as expected, distal
defense was obtained after a delay, but proximal defenses were not. Additionally, defense
of the cultural worldview does not occur when mortality is highly salient, or when people
are forced to keep thoughts of death in consciousness following our typical subtle MS
manipulation (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Simon, and Breus, 1994), or when they
are asked to behave “rationally” (Simon, Greenberg, Harmon-Jones, Solomon,
Pyszczynski, Arndt, and Abend, 1997). A variety of additional studies have shown that
reactions immediately following MS are logically related to the problem of death; for
example, immediately after MS people increase their intentions to get more exercise and
use safe sun products. However, after a delay, when death-related thought is not in focal
attention but high in accessibility, responses serve bolstering of the worldview and self-
esteem, reactions that sometimes run counter to logical efforts to forestall death; for
example, after MS and a delay people for whom tanning was relevant to their self-esteem
actually lowered their intentions to use safe sun products (Routledge, et al., 2004).

Arndt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, and Simon (1997) also demonstrated that
the accessibility of death-related thoughts is low immediately following MS as a result of
an active suppression of such thoughts, and that a delayed increase in the accessibility of
death-related thoughts (presumably from relaxation of the suppression) is responsible for
the delayed appearance of cultural worldview defense. More specifically, whereas death
thought accessibility was low immediately after MS among participants under low
cognitive load, death accessibility was high immediately after MS among participants with
high cognitive load. As Wegner (1992) has shown, cognitive load interferes with thought
suppression; thus these findings suggest that the initial response to thoughts of death is
often to suppress such thoughts.

Research also shows that presenting death-related words beneath conscious
awareness leads to an immediate increase in death thought accessibility and heightened
worldview defense relative to negative or neutral or control words (Arndt, Greenberg,
Pyszczynski, and Solomon 1997; Harmon-Jones, et al., 1997), and that cultural worldview
defense and self-esteem bolstering keep levels of death-thought accessibility low.
Specifically, following MS, both self-esteem and worldview bolstering bring death
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 5(3). 2007. -483-

Terror management and evolution
accessibility back down to baseline levels (Arndt et al., 1997b; Greenberg et al., 2000;
Harmon-Jones et al., 1997). In addition, death-related thought increases the accessibility of
chronically or situationally salient aspects of one’s worldview (Arndt, Greenberg, and
Cook, 2002; for a recent review of research supporting the entire model, see Arndt, Cook,
and Routledge, 2004). Taken together, these findings suggest that heightened accessibility
of death-related thought is a necessary and sufficient condition to produce worldview
defense and self-esteem striving following MS.

Figure 1. The Cognitive Architecture of Terror Management.

Conscious death
thought activation
Proximal Defenses that reduce
conscious death accessibility
subliminal
high cognitive
death primes
load and MS
(Delayed) increase in non-conscious
death thought activation
Spreading activation to worldview components
Distal Defenses that bolster
self-esteem and meaning
reduction in death thought accessibility






According to this dual process model, it is the potential to experience anxiety, rather
than the actual experience of anxiety, that is triggered by heightened death thought
accessibility and that mediates worldview defense. In a test of this hypothesis, Greenberg et
al. (2003) had participants consume a placebo purported to either block anxiety or enhance
memory. Then, after a MS or control induction, participants evaluated pro- and anti-
American essays as a measure of worldview defense. Although MS intensified worldview
defense in the memory-enhancer condition, this effect was completely eliminated in the
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 5(3). 2007. -484-

Terror management and evolution
anxiety-blocker condition. These results suggest that cultural worldview defense serves to
avert the experience of anxiety rather than to ameliorate actually experienced anxiety.


Threats to Terror Management Defenses Increase Death Thought Accessibility

TMT’s dual process model also suggests that inductions semantically unrelated to
death which threaten terror management defenses can produce heightened accessibility of
implicit death thoughts. As an example of research consistent with this hypothesis,
Mikulincer, Florian, and Hirschberger (2003) examined the terror management function of
close relationships. They predicted and found that MS heightens the motivation to form and
maintain close relationships, and that threats to close relationships result in increased death-
thought accessibility. Additionally, Goldenberg et al. found that thoughts of the physical,
corporeal aspects of sex (rather than the more romantic aspects) increased the accessibility
of death-related thoughts among neurotics (1999) and high and low neurotics following a
reminder of humans’ similarity to animals (2002). Landau et al. (2004a) and Hirschberger
(in press) both found that threats to belief in a just world increased death thought
accessibility. Landau et al. (2004b) also found evidence of increased death-thought
accessibility following subliminal reminders of the events of 9/11.

Most recently, Schimel, Hayes, Williams, and Jahrig (2007) have shown that threats
to the Canadian worldview and to a pro-creationism worldview increase death thought
accessibility among Canadians and creationists, respectively, on both word-stem
completion and lexical decision measures. Furthermore, they found that these effects are
eliminated when the threat could be easily dismissed, independent of the arousal of both
anxiety and anger, and distinct from increases in the accessibility of other negative and
neutral words. In another set of studies, Hayes, Schimel, and Williams (2007) found
evidence of increased death thought accessibility following self-esteem threats.
Specifically, participants who received negative feedback on their intelligence or
personality were subsequently faster to make lexical decisions about death-related words,
but not negative or neutral words.

Summary

In sum, there is now a substantial empirical literature that provides strong support
for the central tenets of terror management theory: 1) in a large number of studies, priming
thoughts of death, but not other aversive topics, engenders exaggerated need for the
anxiety-buffering properties of cultural worldviews; this is reflected in increased regard for
anything that supports the individual’s worldview as well as increased disdain for anything
that threatens to undermine its validity; 2) MS relative to controls similarly instigates
efforts to bolster and protect self-esteem; 3) self-esteem reduces anxiety in response to
threatening circumstances; 4) momentarily elevated or dispositionally high self-esteem
reduces or eliminates worldview defenses following MS; 5) MS increases investment in
basic ways people imbue their social and personal lives with meaning; 6) MS increases
distancing from reminders that humans are animals; 6) threats to psychological beliefs that
serve a terror management function increase the accessibility of death-related thought; and
7) MS effects are instigated by heightened accessibility of implicit death thoughts and the
function of terror management processes is to avert the potential for anxiety engendered by
death-related thought and reduce the accessibility of such thoughts.

Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 5(3). 2007. -485-

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