What is Mortality Salience?
Mortality salience is a psychological state in which a person is consciously thinking about his/her own death.
The term mortality salience was coined in 1986 by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszcynski, and Sheldon Solomon as a means to assess terror management theory—a theory which proposes that mortality salience causes existential anxiety that may be buffered by an individual's cultural worldview and/or sense of self-esteem.
Terror management is a theory which posits that the fear of death motivates individuals to sustain faith in a cultural belief system or worldview that makes life seem meaningful and sustain the belief that they are significant and capable of enduring beyond their own death. Learn more Opens in new window!
Greenberg and colleagues proposed that, if the terror management theory is correct, then having people think about their own death—that is, mortality salience—should increase people’s support of their own cultural worldview.
The most often used method to induce mortality salience is to ask participants to respond to the two prompts below:
- “Please describe the emotions the thought of your own death arouses in you” and
- “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead.”
Highlights of Mortality Salience Research
The first finding was that mortality salience led municipal court judges to recommend a much higher bond in a hypothetical prostitution case than they otherwise would. This was interpreted as support for terror management theory because it showed that mortality salience encouraged the judges to uphold their worldview by punishing someone who violated the morals of their worldview.
Findings show that mortality salience leads people to react positively to those who support their worldview and negatively to those who violate or criticize their worldview.
Other studies reveal that mortality salience affects a wide range of judgments and behaviours that preserve faith in either one’s worldview or one’s self-esteem.
Mortality salience is known to be induced by exposure to gory accident footage, death anxiety questionnaires, and proximity to funeral homes and cemeteries.
Studies investigating the cognitive processes involved in mortality salience effects have shown that mortality salience initially leads people toward distracting themselves from thoughts of death. After a delay, thoughts of death return to the fringes of consciousness, at which time the worldview and self-esteem bolstering effects of mortality salience occur.
Indeed, similar effects have been shown in response to exposure to brief subliminal flashes of death-related words on a computer screen; these subliminal primes bring death thoughts to the fringes of consciousness without making mortality salient (Roy F. Baumeister & Kathleen D. Vohs, Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Vol. 1).