Terror Management Theory

What Is Terror Management Theory?

Terror management theory (TMT) is a social psychological theory which proposes that humans’ desire of continued existence juxtaposed with their mortality-salientOpens in new window instincts (the awareness of their mortality) may create in them an ever-present potential to experience existential anxiety—the excruciating terror that death, which thwarts the desire to stay alive is inevitable.

Again the theory posits that the terror 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.

One of the most important functions of cultural worldviews is to manage the terror engendered by death awareness. This is accomplished primarily through the cultural mechanism of self-esteem, which consists of the belief that one is a valuable contributor to a meaningful universe, and hence eligible for literal and/or symbolic immortality (Oxford Bibliographies).

Indeed, humans endeavor to sustain the belief they are significant contributors to a meaningful universe to minimize the potential for terror engendered by their awareness of their own mortality (Roy F. Baumeister & Kathleen D. Vohs, Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Vol. 1).

Background of the Theory

The terror management theory (TMT) was developed in 1984 by three social psychologists: Sheldon SolomonOpens in new window, Jeff GreenbergOpens in new window, and Tom PyszczynskiOpens in new window, who were student colleagues in University of Kansas at the time.

The theory was inspired in response to their constant search for answers to two basic questions about human behavior:

The trio found potential answers to these questions in the works of Ernest BeckerOpens in new window—the anthropologist who integrated insights from psychoanalysis, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy into a framework for understanding the motives that drive human behaviour.

Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski designed terror management theory to summarize, simplify, and elaborate Becker’s scholarly synthesis into a unified theory from which they could generate new testable hypotheses regarding the psychological functions of self-esteem and culture, and thereby address the two basic questions they originally posed (Roy F. Baumeister & Kathleen D. Vohs, Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Vol. 1).

The terror management theory is built with two basic assumptions.

  1. The first assumption is that humans have a strong desire to stay alive. In this view, humans are regarded as “evolved animals” wielding a wide range of biological systems serving survival.
  2. The second is that, unlike other animals, humans have penchant to develop cognitive abilities to think abstractly; to think in terms of past, present, and future; and to be aware of their own existence.

Although these cognitive abilities provide many adaptive advantages, they have led to the realization that humans are mortal, vulnerable to all sorts of threats to continued existence and that death, which thwarts the desire to stay alive, is inevitable.

According to the theory, the juxtaposition of the desire to stay alive with the knowledge of one’s mortality creates an ever-present potential to experience existential terror, the fear of no longer existing.

To keep the potential terror concerning mortality at bay, people need to sustain faith in a meaning-providing cultural worldview and the belief they are significant contributors to that meaningful reality (self-esteem).

By psychologically living in a world of absolute meaning and enduring significance, people can obscure the possibility that they are really just transient animals in a purposeless universe destined only to absolute annihilation upon death (Roy F. Baumeister & Kathleen D. Vohs, Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Vol. 1).