Terror Management Studies is a brand new area of research — and it’s not about IS or Boko Haram

The Worm at the Core is too excited about overcoming the fear of death to bother with the enjoyment of life

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

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

Allen Lane, pp.229, £20, ISBN: 9780241217252

This is not a book to be read in solitude. Not for the obvious reason that it’s frightening, but because every few lines some fascinating or unexpected fact forces you to exclaim: ‘Blimey! Listen to this …’

The three authors are American psychology professors. As young academics they were much influenced by the work of the anthropologist Ernest Becker, whose final book, The Denial of Death, won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. This work struck them as a most important and potentially fruitful area for further investigation. Over the past 30 years, between them, they seem to have invented a new area of research with the unpromising name of Terror Management Studies. This makes it sound as if they could win a lucrative contract as ideas men for IS or Boko Haram. What they actually do is conduct experiments in order to find out how exposure to thoughts of death affects us.

Their answers are very odd. Subjects who are invited to write a few lines about their own death seem afterwards to undergo a surge of patriotism, to become more reactionary. A number of judges who answered questions about their own deaths before sentencing imposed much harsher penalties. While judges who hadn’t answered these questions gave a street prostitute an average $50 fine, the death-questioned ones fined the same woman a whopping $455. It seems that intimations of mortality are allayed by a sense of community and cultural belonging. Hence the American flags which blossomed everywhere after the 11 September attacks.

Unfortunately it isn’t just fellow feeling which arises when we are frightened. People who have responded to the death questions not only undergo a surge of appreciation for their own values, they are also far more likely to derogate and dislike other cultures. The authors of this volume are convinced that this explains why humans go to war. They don’t mention road rage, which surely has the same source. They believe that fear begets violence. ‘Our longing to transcend death inflames violence towards each other,’ they assert.

On a brighter note, the best protection against fear of death is self-esteem. Subjects who are told they are clever, or even above average, respond less fearfully to frightening stimuli. This seemed to me to be big news for nervous travellers and phobics: if self-esteem also diminishes anxiety, maybe it’s time to chuck out the Valium and start bragging instead. Never mind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: what about Cognitive Boasting Therapy?

The Worm at the Core is stuffed with odd statistics. American women spend more money on cosmetics than the United Nations spends on all its agencies and funds. By the age of 18, the average American youth will have viewed depictions of 16,000 murders and 200,000 violent acts. And that’s just on telly. By the time you factor in computer games, the total is far, far higher. Small wonder that psychologists are now saying that the young are becoming blunted and without empathy.

Sometimes, though, the book appears to be straining to make connections. The reasons for war are surely more complex than an atavistic fear of death, as anyone who has entered into a boundary dispute with a neighbour will attest. Yet they ignore territorial feeling as a motive.

One of their main contentions is that we humans go to extraordinary lengths in order to reassure ourselves that we are not like other animals. If we are only mammals like any other, our mortality is all too evident, according to this thesis. Hence our need for culture, religion, politics and body modificiation.

Make-up, the authors assert, is not a thing that chimpanzees go in for: ergo, it allays our fear of death. When we use cosmetics, ‘it is no coincidence that such efforts are almost always directed toward reducing out resemblance to other animals’. They’ve clearly never seen children having their faces painted at a birthday party. Historians of adornment tend to emphasise that make-up is intended to simulate the appearance of sexual arousal, hence the red lips, flushed cheeks and bright eyes. This seems to me much more likely, than that we are trying to look less like a fish or a chipmunk. Unless a mascara wand became so named because someone really thought it could do magic and make us immortal.

They also contend that almost all mental conditions are ways of managing the fear of death, whether post-traumatic stress, depression or even schizophrenia. It’s possible. What we are meant to do about it is another matter, and one they barely touch on. Quite understandably, the authors are so overexcited about their findings that they tag on just a few pages about living in nature and enjoying love, as an afterthought.

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