The Denial of Death

The Denial of Death

Yesterday afternoon, I viewed the documentary, Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality.
This film deals with ongoing research into the psychological effects of
death anxiety on humans and their culture. It follows the theories of
Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who won a Pulitzer Prize in
1974 for his book, The Denial Of Death.

Becker’s
theory claims there is a correlation between the fear of death and the
violence we inflict on our fellow humans. Basically, unconscious death
anxiety is the cause of violent behavior on those people who are
different from us; we gravitate towards those who are similar to us.
Here is a quote from the Wikipedia entry for this film:

In a
recent study, the research team discovered that reminding Palestinians
of their own death through subconscious means inspired conscious shifts
in opinion towards wanting to become suicide bombers. This subconscious
death reminder inspired the subjects to act aggressively against
differing others, even at the risk of losing their own lives. Terror is
the result of deep psychological forces, but through the research
covered in the film, these forces can be charted and explained, yielding
information about terror and terrorism that has never been available
before.

The research results are really astounding.

The theory has resulted in a new area of study within academic psychology called Terror Management Theory.
TMT is the work of three academic psychologists, Dr. Sheldon Solomon of
Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York; Dr. Tom Pyszczynski,
Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado
Springs; and Dr. Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona. The
following is from the corresponding Wikipedia article:

The
theory builds from the assumption that the capability of self-reflection
and the consciousness of one’s own mortality, can be regarded as a
continuous source for existential anguish. Culture diminishes this
psychological terror by providing meaning, organization and continuity
to men’s and women’s lives. Compliance with cultural values enhances
one’s feeling of security and self-esteem, provided that the individual
is capable of living in accordance with whatever particular cultural
standards apply to him or her. The belief in the rightness of the
cultural values and standards creates the conviction necessary to live a
reasonable and meaningful life. Because of this men and women strive to
have their cultural worldview confirmed by others, thereby receiving
the community’s esteem. However, when one’s worldview is threatened by
the weltanschauungen of another,
it often results in one’s self-respect being endangered as well. In
such a situation people not only endeavour to deny or devalue the
importance third party weltanschauung, but try to controvert the ideas and opinions of others which may, as a consequence, escalate into a conflict.

Now, remember, the theory is promoting the view that unconscious
reminders of death lead to violent behavior and conflict toward those
who are dissimilar to us. What if we learned to embrace our own death
through conscious reminders? Wouldn’t this have the opposite effect?

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