We are living in a time of extreme insecurity and multiple threats to our existence: COVID-19 and its variants, massive fires and floods due to global warming, and increasing violence perpetrated by extremists. Within a few months in 2020 we went from a world in which death was something in the indefinite future for many of us, to a world in which not only our own death but the deaths of millions became an imminent possibility.
A rational response would be to come together and fight for our collective survival. So why are so many people choosing divisiveness instead? Sheldon Solomon, a professor of psychology at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, offers an answer: when reminded of the fact that we die, we double down on our existing beliefs and circle the wagons, regarding anyone outside our cultural group with suspicion.
Solomon has studied the effects of death awareness on human behavior and attitudes for more than thirty years. I first encountered his work while watching the award-winning 2003 documentary Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, in which he speaks articulately about death denial. Dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and standing with the Golden Gate Bridge behind him, he appeared down-to-earth, more hippie than academic.
In 1986 Solomon and his colleagues Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona and Tom Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs developed the concept they call “terror management theory,” which attempts to explain human behavior and attitudes as a response to our anxiety about death. When we are reminded of our mortality, Solomon and his colleagues claim, we shape our attitudes and behaviors to keep our fear of death contained. They have based their theory on the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, author of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Denial of Death. Becker said that we buffer our anxiety about death by cultivating self-esteem, which for him isn’t simply feeling good about yourself. It’s the sense that the world has meaning — a meaning that is defined by our culture. When we act in ways that reinforce our cultural views, whether liberal or conservative, religious or secular, we increase our self-esteem and decrease our anxiety about death.
I read The Denial of Death in my twenties, and it continues to have enormous impact on me. I have also taught terror management theory as an assistant professor in thanatology — the study of death. I contacted Solomon in the summer of 2020, and we arranged to meet in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a midpoint between our homes. He appeared wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, as he had in the documentary, his longish hair now graying. Donning our masks, we sat down to talk outside the Williams Inn. Later we continued the conversation by phone.
Solomon is an American Psychological Society Fellow and a recipient of numerous professional awards, most recently a Career Contribution Award by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. He is the coauthor, with Greenberg and Pyszczynski, of In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror and The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the Ernest Becker Foundation, and he has published many articles in academic journals over his forty-four-year career. We spoke at length about terror management theory, the destructive ways in which we seek symbolic (and even literal) immortality, and how we might find meaning in our lives when the cultural ties that bind us are in tatters.
Alecson: When did you discover the work of Ernest Becker and his analysis of death denial as an, if not the, underlying force in human nature?
Solomon: I discovered Becker’s work by accident at the library at Skidmore College a few weeks after I arrived there as an assistant professor in 1980. I was immediately struck by the first paragraph of The Birth and Death of Meaning, in which he writes that he wanted to provide an interdisciplinary account “about what makes people act the way they do.”
Next to that book was The Denial of Death, which Becker wrote while terminally ill. In it he says that the fear of death haunts human beings like nothing else. He calls it the “mainspring of human activity.” In my gut, I felt this was true.
Becker argues that humans are quite unlike any other form of life in that we can imagine things that don’t even exist and then make them real. We’re so smart that we realize we exist. The downside to that is, if you’re smart enough to know you exist, you also know that, like all other living things, you will someday die. And the thought of nonexistence causes fear and discomfort.
Becker says what humans do, quite ingeniously, to manage that existential terror is to embrace “cultural worldviews” — a set of values and beliefs that we share with other people. These reduce our anxiety by providing a sense that the world has meaning and that, by embodying these values, we can play a valuable role in the world. That’s what gives us the psychological fortitude to make our way through life.
Becker calls this belief that you’re a person of value in a world of meaning “self-esteem.” It’s a common term in psychological discourse, but Becker defines it in this unique way. He calls it an “anxiety buffer.”
We’ve done extensive work demonstrating that high self-esteem reduces anxiety in response to threats. When we momentarily elevate people’s self-esteem, then have them watch movies of an electrocution and an autopsy, they report being less anxious than the control group. Or we might tell them they’re going to receive a painful electric shock, and we find that elevated self-esteem diminishes the physiological reaction to that threat.
Alecson: What motivated you and your colleagues to do empirical research to prove Becker’s hypothesis?
Solomon: Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and I had been graduate students together at the University of Kansas in the 1970s, and we all thought Becker’s ideas were profound and provocative, but our fellow academic psychologists were unpersuaded. The first talk I gave at an academic conference about these ideas, most of the two hundred psychologists in the room walked out in the first five or ten minutes. When we wrote a paper and submitted it to American Psychologist, it was rejected with a one-sentence response along the lines of “These ideas are of no interest to any psychologist.”
So we did our research to convince our colleagues of the merits of Becker’s ideas. We felt that, if we could provide empirical support for these ideas, other psychologists would have to engage with them intellectually.
Alecson: You and your colleagues developed “terror management theory” in 1986. What, in essence, does it say?
Solomon: Terror management theory is our haiku-like rendering of Becker. He wrote something like fourteen books, and we reduced his ideas to less than a paragraph of theoretical assertions, starting with the idea that our awareness of death would riddle us with fear were it not for the cultural worldviews that afford us self-esteem. Because our worldviews and self-esteem serve such an important function, we spend most of our waking moments and resources trying to maintain them.
After more than thirty years and thousands of studies — not only by Jeff and Tom and me but by independent researchers all over the world — there is substantial support for Becker’s claim that our efforts to deny or transcend death have a pervasive effect on human behavior.
Studies show, for example, that when people are reminded they’re going to die, they will behave in ways that reinforce their cultural worldviews or boost their self-esteem. Usually this means they are more supportive and enthusiastic about individuals who share their beliefs and react negatively — sometimes with hostility and aggression — toward people who violate their beliefs or are outsiders.
Alecson: What are some examples of how our awareness of death shapes our everyday behavior?
Solomon: I’m going to reframe that question just a bit and talk about subtle death reminders, which are not quite the same as death awareness. With subtle reminders, the awareness is more subconscious. You’re probably not even cognizant that death is on your mind. We know that death reminders have consequential effects on a panoply of everyday behaviors. Most people who are reminded that they’re going to die eat more chocolate-chip cookies, for example. People who consume alcohol are more likely to buy a drink after a death reminder. People who smoke cigarettes not only smoke more but inhale more vigorously.
If you tell people who find tanning attractive — and whose self-esteem is based on their physical appearance — that being out in the sun causes skin cancer, and then you ask, “How long are you going to stay out in the sun, and how much sunscreen are you going to use?” they say they will stay out a lot longer and use less sunscreen. What’s happening is that, when they’re reminded of death, they are unconsciously trying to boost their self-esteem, which is based on their appearance. Death reminders, in this case, foster behavior that may make you die sooner.
We get our values from our culture. If our culture emphasizes caring for children and old people, for example, then when we’re reminded of death, we should want to take care of children and old people more. But if we have a culture of narcissism, then when we’re reminded of our mortality, we turn into narcissists.
If your self-esteem is based on your driving prowess, when you’re reminded of death, you drive faster and more recklessly. If you shop a lot and are reminded of death, you become more interested in buying fancy stuff, and you’re willing to pay more for it. If you’re a basketball player and reminded of death, you’ll actually be more accurate shooting foul shots. If you lift weights and you’re reminded of death, and then I ask you to grip something and squeeze it as hard as possible, you’ll squeeze it harder. I can go on and on. Concerns about mortality suffuse everything that we think and do, whether we are aware of it or not.
Alecson: What sort of experiments do you use to show this?
Solomon: To start, we need to remind people of their own mortality somehow. The participants in our studies usually think they’re filling out personality questionnaires, but these are just a distraction. At some point in the middle of all the questions, we ask people to briefly describe the emotions that the thought of their own death arouses in them and then jot down what they think will happen to them as they die. In other studies we have people read something on a computer screen and then flash the word death on-screen so fast they aren’t aware it happened.
People who consume alcohol are more likely to buy a drink after a death reminder. People who smoke cigarettes not only smoke more but inhale more vigorously.
Alecson: Have any of the results of your studies surprised you?
Solomon: Frankly all of them did when we started, because we had no idea whether there was any merit to Becker’s notions, or whether we’d be able to demonstrate it.
Our very first study was conducted with twenty-two municipal-court judges in Tucson, Arizona. We reminded half the judges that they were going to die and used the other half as a control group, who received no reminder. Then we had all the judges pretend to set bond for an alleged prostitute. In the control group the judges set an average bond of about fifty dollars, which was the norm in Tucson at the time. The judges who’d been reminded of their mortality, however, set an average bond of $450. This is a remarkable difference. After the study, when we told the judges what we had done, they all said there was no way the questionnaire could have altered their judgments in the case. Here were people trained to adjudicate the law in a rational and uniform fashion, yet just a subtle reminder of death was like putting a giant fist on the proverbial scales of justice.
In another study we had people read an article about a citizen who’d thwarted a bank robbery, and then we asked how much reward this person should get. The control group said about a thousand dollars, but the ones who’d been made conscious of their mortality said about three thousand dollars.
I guess what has surprised us most is finding that death denial touches every aspect of our lives. For example, how come people can’t get along with others who don’t share their beliefs? Becker’s view is that accepting someone else’s beliefs undermines my confidence in my own. Therefore, he predicted, when we run into people with different beliefs, we will try to convince them to adopt ours, and if that doesn’t work, we will denigrate them or even kill them.
Sure enough, in our studies, we have found that when we remind Christians they’re going to die, they like Christians more and Jewish people less. When Germans are reminded that they’re going to die, they sit closer to people who look German and farther from people who look like immigrants. Iranians reminded that they’re going to die are more supportive of suicide bombers. Americans reminded they’re going to die are more supportive of using chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons against countries that do not in any way threaten us.
So the biggest surprise is really the consistency and robustness of the effects. They have been replicated in a variety of settings, in around twenty-five countries on five continents, and in children as young as ten and adults as old as their eighties.
Alecson: What have the reactions been to terror management theory in the fields of psychology, sociology, and thanatology?
Solomon: Early on in psychology it ranged from militant indifference to vehement contempt. We were young, we were brash, and we were advocating for this big theory at a time when big theories were out of vogue and psychology was moving toward more cognitive, data-driven science or just avoiding theories altogether. Academic psychologists wanted to distance themselves from philosophy and other pursuits they saw as not anchored in empirical evidence. It took us years to publish our first papers.
Reactions were more positive outside of psychology, from folks in sociology, social work, or thanatology, for example. Jesuit theologians were highly receptive because we were talking about concepts like what gives life meaning. English professors would say, “Oh, you guys are finally catching up to the poets and the philosophers.”
Over the decades, however, we have become an accepted part of academic psychology. There’s now a branch called “experimental existential psychology,” and it includes terror management theory, attachment theory, and other perspectives.
That’s not to say that everybody agrees with us. This may sound somewhat odd, but one indication that you’re taken seriously as a science is when people take the time to doubt you. There are vigorous and intelligent people who take issue with some aspects of the theory.
Because existential threats tend to make people double down on core beliefs, they do encourage fundamentalism, and that’s a potent political tool that politicians have used with ruthless effectiveness throughout history.
Alecson: What are some of their concerns?
Solomon: One is that we put too much emphasis on anxiety about death as the ultimate motivational underpinning for human behavior. Some say it’s not really death; it’s uncertainty. But let’s say you knew for certain that you would die tomorrow at noon. Then there’d be no uncertainty, but the thought still would cause anxiety. To put it another way, if I knew I was going to live forever, I doubt other uncertainties would even faze me.
Another group argues that death is not the ultimate concern so much as our need for meaning. And of course people are highly motivated to feel that life is meaningful. But if you go to the pyramids in Egypt and read the inscriptions on the tombs, they’re all about living forever. And according to legend, Ponce de León came to Florida looking for the Fountain of Youth, not the Fountain of Meaning.
Some evolutionary psychologists say our theory is inconsistent with natural selection because all adaptations arise in response to external conditions, and death anxiety is internal. We disagree with that view, as do some evolution scholars. Ajit Varki, a distinguished professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, wrote a book called Denial, in which he argues that death anxiety could have brought about the evolution of consciousness — or, at least, modified it. His theory is based in part on our work. And a biologist named Lonnie Aarssen at Queen’s University in Canada also uses our work to buttress the evolutionary account in his book What Are We?
A third avenue of criticism is the broad claim that our empirical studies — and there are now more than a thousand of them — are not replicable. There’s concern right now, particularly in psychology, that a lot of the experiments conducted over the last few decades can’t be directly reproduced, because different statistical methods are now used to make those determinations. Some claim that when you do the statistical analyses using these newer and more sophisticated methods, the empirical findings in support of terror management theory are not as strong as they were originally believed to be.
Our reaction to that is: Fine, because the same methods of statistical analysis that have declared our findings weaker have done the same for many other research programs. This means researchers have to be more careful about how they design and conduct their studies in the future, but we don’t see that as a sufficient reason to abandon all prior research. Almost all theories are proven wrong in the long run, but I find that terror management theory has held its own and continued to help us understand phenomena that would be difficult to explain without it.
Alecson: How do you see terror management theory playing out in our world today, with awareness of mortality heightened in the midst of a pandemic and accelerated climate change?
Solomon: I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that almost everybody on earth is currently more aware than usual that they’re going to die. So far this seems to be producing the same kinds of effects that we find in our studies: People are becoming more racist, xenophobic, and willing to engage in hate crimes than they were in the recent past, for example. But being reminded that we’re going to die can also bring out the best in us, making us more altruistic — at least, toward people we consider to be part of our group. And, sure enough, folks have been quite generous in the middle of the pandemic.
In our studies, when we remind Americans that they’re going to die, conservatives become more suspicious of people, and liberals become more open-minded and tolerant. This is purely speculative, but I wonder if the pandemic has made white progressives and liberals and even moderates more open to acknowledging systemic racism? The response to George Floyd’s murder was greater than anyone expected. It was a terrible thing, of course, but there have been so many atrocities inflicted upon people of color by the police in the U.S. Usually there’s a couple of days of outrage, and then many of us move on. But we didn’t this time. We might be seeing the pervasive awareness of our mortality magnifying preexisting attitudes.
Alecson: To wear a mask or not to wear a mask has become a politicized decision, even though masks are scientifically proven to reduce COVID-19 contagion. How does death denial play out in this battle?
Solomon: As I’ve said, when people are reminded they’re going to die, they work to bolster confidence in their existing worldviews. For people who support President Trump, he is their worldview. [Trump was still president when this conversation took place. — Ed.] As shocking as this might be to his detractors, the people who have put all of their eggs in the Trump basket are more motivated than ever to adhere to his beliefs. And Trump’s view of the pandemic has been that the coronavirus is as mild as the flu, and wearing a mask is a sign of weakness or, worse, of being a Democrat. Remember when Trump returned to the White House after he was hospitalized with the coronavirus, and he stood on the balcony and took off his mask? The irony is that he has offered his supporters a worldview that diminishes their anxiety about death while putting them in a position where they are more likely to die.
Alecson: Could a politician use a threat to the country to cause voters to adopt more-fundamentalist points of view?
Solomon: Yes. Because existential threats tend to make people double down on core beliefs, they do encourage fundamentalism, and that’s a potent political tool that politicians have used with ruthless effectiveness throughout history. Max Weber, the German sociologist, said at the beginning of the twentieth century that in times of historical upheaval, when folks feel existentially threatened, they tend to embrace the “charismatic leader.” They view this leader as endowed with supernatural, superhuman powers and believe he or she is singularly capable of ridding the world of evil, often with divine support.
Hitler was known for this. He understood how to frame threats to Germany to his advantage. Whether in a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a communist system, people can always be more easily controlled if you tell them that they’re under attack and denounce pacifists for their lack of patriotism. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush said, “We will rid the world of the evildoers,” and went from his lowest approval rating to his highest approval rating in about three weeks. Later he said he believed that God had chosen him to lead the country at a perilous time. We did a lot of studies in 2003 and 2004 that showed Americans liked President Bush a lot more if we reminded them of death first.
Fast-forward to 2016. We all remember when Donald Trump declared that he was going to “make America great again.” He was going to build a giant wall to repel the hordes of “rapists” and “drug dealers” trying to cross our southern border. He was going to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the country. He was going to bomb ISIS. And his supporters viewed him, and still do, in heroic terms. They see him as a shrewd, deal-making billionaire unrestrained by political correctness. It doesn’t bother them at all that he’s a vulgar, sadistic, vindictive, pathologically narcissistic, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, functionally illiterate, pussy-grabbing, rage-tweeting Mussolini. In fact, they like him more because of that.
President Trump’s entire administration is a glaring example of what you get when people are in a heightened state of existential anxiety. In 2016 we did the same study we’d done in 2004, and, sure enough, when we reminded people of their mortality, they tended to like Trump more. The same thing happened a few weeks before the 2020 election. White people liked Donald Trump much more than Joe Biden if death was on their minds, although they liked Biden more than Trump otherwise. The shocking thing is that nonwhite people, who liked Biden more than Trump regardless, also liked Trump better after they were reminded of death. In my opinion this helps explain why the election was so close and why Trump got more Black and Hispanic support in 2020 than he had in 2016.
Alecson: How do concepts of death and self-esteem differ between Western and Indigenous cultures, or Eastern and Western cultures?
Solomon: I’m not an anthropologist, but obviously there’s tremendous variation both between and within cultures. Every culture has specific ideas about what happens when one dies. Similarly all cultures have their own standards by which self-esteem is derived. There was a big debate among psychologists at one point about whether self-esteem is a purely Western concept. Some thought it doesn’t exist in Eastern cultures. I think people do have self-esteem in the East. The standards are just different. To stereotype it: In the West we try to stick out; we get self-esteem from being different. In the East self-esteem is generally obtained by fitting in. But I would argue that there is no culture on the face of the Earth that goes to greater lengths to deny death than ours.
We value youth and beauty and discount age and wisdom. We rarely speak of death or see a dead person. We’ve got Google working on immortality through nanobots. We’ve got the cryonics companies, like the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, that will freeze your body or brain in hopes of resurrecting you someday. I think a case could be made we go beyond just feeling anxiety about death. We desire to transcend it.
Alecson: Is the level of death anxiety in a country linked to how developed it is?
Solomon: The short answer is no. For example, in a 2007 study, going from high levels of death anxiety to low, the list looked like this: Qatar, India, the Philippines, Syria, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Korea, Australia, Canada, the U.S., Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Spain, and Hong Kong. We have no idea how to interpret those rankings.
Measuring death anxiety is also difficult. It’s really not clear what it means for people to say that they are either more or less afraid of death. Some people who say they’re not afraid of death respond the most defensively when we remind them that they’re going to die.
Alecson: Can we face mortality without hope for some sort of immortality, such as a belief in an eternal soul?
Solomon: If we could answer that, you and I could share the Nobel Prize money. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard would say no. Becker’s ideas lean heavily on Kierkegaard’s notion that there’s got to be a leap of faith, a devotion to a higher power that suggests immortality is possible. But I see no reason, in principle, why there couldn’t be other possibilities. I’m thinking particularly of Martin Heidegger’s take on these matters. Heidegger was a German philosopher who came later and offered a kind of secular alternative to Kierkegaard. He says it’s quite possible to come to terms with our own mortality in a way that does not require belief in an eternal soul. His view is that we need to accept our mortality, and not just as something that will happen in a vague future moment: “Oh, I’m going to die someday.” That’s not enough. Heidegger says you must accept that you can die at any time to have what he calls a “moment of vision,” when we realize: “OK, I’m born into this world, and my lot in life really is arbitrary, yet within those constraints I can make choices. I’m going to look forward to the future and be concerned about other people around me, and life’s going to feel like an adventure filled with unshakable joy.” I like that view. I want to do some research to see whether this state that Heidegger describes is potent enough that we can demonstrate its effects in an empirical setting.
Alecson: Does limiting someone’s choices increase death anxiety or related behaviors?
Solomon: It depends on the individual, specifically on their degree of neuroticism. I did an experiment with a former student, Jamie Arndt, who’s now the chair of the psychology department at the University of Missouri. We found that if you’re not very neurotic and get reminded of death, then you want more control. My guess is that such people would react negatively to limited choices. On the other hand, people who are highly neurotic, when they’re reminded that they’re going to die, increase their desire for other people to take control over their affairs. My guess is they would not mind their choices being limited.
I could talk for hours about this. The study of what happens to us when our choices are limited is called “psychological reactance.” We relish choice and respond vigorously when our freedom to choose is restricted. We are also, however, intimidated by choice and get paralyzed when we have too many options.
Alecson: Do people generally become more accepting of their mortality as they age?
Solomon: Clinical as well as empirical evidence suggests that, as people get older, there’s a psychological fork in the road where some become more accepting of their mortality and others become less so. Psychologist Erik Erikson noted that some people, nearing death, see no meaning in their existence. Offered the chance to live again, they would want to be anybody but themselves. These people are angry and fearful about dying. Others report that life gets more meaningful as they get older. Asked who they would like to be if they could live again, they want to be themselves. They might do some things differently, but they would like to have another shot at being who they are. These people are apprehensive about death but see it as the price to pay for the privilege of having been alive in the first place.
Recent work finds that which type of person you are has to do with the brain’s executive functioning [which governs focus, flexibility, and self-control — Ed.]. People who have high executive functioning appear to become more flexible as they get older, and their thoughts about death are more accepting. Folks who struggle with executive functioning appear to be less accepting of mortality. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but that’s one finding.
Alecson: I first came across terror management theory in the 2003 documentary Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality. The film posits that, to overcome death anxiety, people try to immortalize themselves in their lifetimes. Is that a good or a bad thing for the world at large?
Solomon: Some of both. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote a book called The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life, in which he identifies the ancient Greeks as perhaps the progenitors of what he called “symbolic immortality”: You realize that you won’t be here forever, but you’re comforted by the fact that some vestige of your existence will persist. If you have kids, you’ll be connected to future generations through your genes. Maybe you’re comforted by knowing that your nation or tribe or religious group is going to outlast you. Perhaps you might want to do a great work in art or science or put your name on buildings. He also writes about a kind of immortality that comes just from identifying with all existence — the “I’m part of the atoms of the cosmos” view.
I would say those are benign or even benevolent ways that folks try to immortalize themselves. It’s a Johnny Appleseed kind of idea: I’m going to plant a tree. Maybe I’ll never get to eat the fruit, but I like to think that, years from now, somebody will eat these apples. They don’t necessarily need to know that I planted them. That’s really not the point.
Some ways people pursue immortality become problematic, however, when they are taken too far, like rabid nationalism or religious fundamentalism or an insatiable desire for money. Becker argued that death anxiety is the reason why Americans are always shopping, shopping, shopping.
A few wealthy people have made bids for literal immortality by having their head lopped off and frozen until they can be resuscitated, or trying to extract their identity from their body and have it put on a computer. I find those to be impoverished efforts and not necessarily good for either people or societies.
Alecson: When it comes to end-of-life decisions in our society, people often choose life at all costs.
Solomon: As I said, we’re a profoundly death-denying culture, so it shouldn’t surprise us that this comes out in medical settings. We have a medical system that often favors, as you put it, “life at all costs.” Recent work has shown that, ironically, when somebody is diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, the sooner they get into palliative care, the better off they are. They are less anxious, less depressed, and they live longer. It turns out that trying to stay alive at all costs is not only expensive; it’s counterproductive. But when a doctor says, “I think you should go on palliative care,” patients and families see that as giving up.
Alecson: If you accept that you’re dying, though, then your energy and your focus can be on living: on human relationships and goals that you might want to achieve, instead of just trying to save your life up until the moment you’re dead.
Solomon: I think we need to redefine who we are as human beings. Right now we’re in an atmosphere of increasing polarization and fragmentation. If humans are to stay alive, we need to become more connected and interdependent. We have to start believing we are in this together, because we are naturally very helpful — even heroic and altruistic — toward members of our own group. If at all possible, we must see ourselves as members of one giant family. That may sound corny, but I know from experiments that if we say to people, “We are more alike than we are different,” and then remind them they’re going to die, they aren’t as quick to hate somebody who’s different.
Alecson: Other than self-esteem, what are some ways we might manage existential anxiety?
Solomon: There is ample evidence of the value of gratitude and humility. Recent studies have shown that genuine humility — not just self-deprecation — appears to buffer death anxiety as much as self-esteem.
Alecson: Maybe self-esteem can be replaced by just serving others.
Solomon: That’s exactly correct. Historically there have been times, even in our culture, when serving others was seen as preferable to serving oneself. The need for self-esteem is not going to go away, but by changing what it means to be a valued person in a world of meaning, I think we can nudge our species in a more productive direction.
I think of William Faulkner when he won the Nobel Prize for literature. His novels are all doom and gloom, yet in his acceptance speech he refused to accept that humanity is doomed. He said we’ll not merely survive; we’ll endure and prevail.
Whatever we’re going through, even something like this pandemic, it’s almost certainly the case that we have confronted and survived even more difficult challenges.
Alecson: By the time this interview is published, we may well have half a million deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19. Recent studies have shown that the larger these numbers are, the more emotionally detached people get. Instead of reminding us of death, it almost has the opposite effect.
Solomon: That’s a fine observation. This is counterintuitive but entirely explicable. Persistent intimations of mortality and large-scale statistics do render us emotionally detached. That’s why, if you want to get people to donate money to animal shelters, you show a single starving puppy rather than the hundreds of thousands of dogs that had to be euthanized because we don’t have enough resources for them. There comes a point where the statistics are so big they’re meaningless. It doesn’t help that many Americans are mathematically illiterate.
A great many people on Earth right now are in an emotionally detached state, which is a precursor of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is certainly true of a lot of health-care providers.
Alecson: What will be the consequences of this many deaths in our country? Obviously there are holes left in communities and families, but from an existential perspective, what will this do to our society?
Solomon: I don’t know. It definitely does not require a PhD in psychology to recognize that the combination of the virus and the economic insecurities and the racial animosities — of all that’s happening right now — may lead to instability, which undermines our trust in government and each other, which then undermines our basic sense of meaning and value, leaving us all either emotionally detached or as angry as raging bulls. You’ve got your zealots on both the Right and the Left. We’re witnessing an extraordinary disruption in our society.
Peter Turchin, a professor at the University of Connecticut, wrote ten years ago that our civilization is in danger of collapse due to political turmoil magnified by increasing economic inequality and unsustainable debt. He isn’t saying it’s inevitable. He’s saying it’s highly likely based on sophisticated models. But his hope is that maybe being aware of it will pressure us to do something about it. I would love this to be the case. I think of the end of Albert Camus’s novel The Plague: “What we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” This is what gives me hope. A lot of the things I find most pleasant and humane about this country were the results of the Great Depression and World War II. They would not have happened in the absence of massive upheaval. This moment of extraordinary political turmoil may actually lead to radical transformations that are good for both individuals and society. I’m thinking of things like a living wage, access to higher education, adequate health care, and more.
We’re in an atmosphere of increasing polarization and fragmentation. If humans are to stay alive, we need to become more connected and interdependent. We have to start believing we are in this together.
Alecson: We haven’t even factored in climate change yet.
Solomon: I held off on that so I could keep talking without collapsing in despair.
Alecson: You mentioned studies showing that gratitude and humility appear to buffer death anxiety as much as self-esteem. What’s the evidence for that?
Solomon: What research has found is that people asked to think about a time in their lives when they’ve felt humble become less defensive when reminded of death. I sometimes wonder if the average American even knows what humility is. Pelin Kesebir, a former student of my colleague Tom, is the one who did the research about humility. I’m going to read a couple of sentences of hers, because I want readers to know what we mean by humble.
A humble person is first and foremost capable of tolerating an honest look at the self and nondefensively accepting weaknesses alongside strengths. This does not represent a sense of inferiority or self-denigration, but rather a lack of self-aggrandizing biases. The propensity for seeing the self in true perspective is typically accompanied by an awareness of the self’s smallness in the grand scheme of things.
She goes on to say that humble people are more sensitive. They feel more connected. They can direct their attention to something beyond themselves.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become enthused about viewing myself as radically inconsequential. After all, I am a respiring piece of carbon-based meat, born in a time and place not of my choosing, here for an infinitesimal amount of time before I will be summarily obliterated and my atoms redistributed. I find that self-image ironically uplifting at this point in my life. I can be proud of becoming a psychologist and writing some books, but I’m no less enthusiastic about getting a lungful of fresh air on a beautiful day or taking the dog for a lap around the block.
I think humility is going to play a big role in psychology moving forward, as will gratitude. Everyone who slept in a bed last night and had breakfast this morning has something to be grateful for. Philosophers and theologians have long emphasized the value of gratitude, and this is now buttressed by research. When we ask people to think about a time in their life when they have felt grateful, it diminishes unconscious thoughts of death. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done in this domain, but I find it to be one of the most uplifting directions of our research. Be humble. Be grateful. It’s good for you. It’s good for the world.