Terror Management Theory

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Introduction Psych 317

As humans, we are unique from animals in many ways. We have an internal guidance system called a conscience that allows us to think and act in a way close to our deepest values. We have an independent will that does not allow genetic influences or the environment to dictate our actions. We have an infinite creative imagination that allows us to create beyond our reality but perhaps the most uniquely human endowment we all possess is self-awareness. Self-awareness is the recognition of how we feel and how we behave. It also allows us to examine why we exist and ultimately, that we are going to die. While self-preservation is a characteristic to both humans and animals, the understanding of one’s own mortality is uniquely human. How do we, as humans, deal with the terror that is associated with this knowledge? According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski (1989), the need for “terror management” is a fundamental function possessed by humans and cultural systems. Based on the writings of anthropologist Ernest Becker and inspired by Freud’s work on how death provokes belief in mystical transcendence, TMT can provide explanations for a variety of human behaviors and relate them to the basic reason of why humans protect themselves from mortality awareness (Magdalena Smieja et al., 2006).

The actuality that we are all going to die, one of the only certainties in life, is an on-going source of existential anguish for humans. This anguish stems from our desire to preserve life and the awareness of this impossibility. Since we cannot resolve this paradox, we use culture as protection from the fear of death. By complying with the cultural worldview that our world is safe, balanced and constant, our sense of meaning enhances and our feelings of security and self-esteem heightens. When the 9/11 attacks struck and images of death and destruction were exposed to...
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