Ernest Becker delves deep into our denial of death in his 1973 Nobel Prize-winning book called, you guessed it, The Denial of Death.
Watch the 9-minute video below for a summary of the book.
Essentially, the universal, intrinsic fear of death in our species drives us to cling to our own culture’s beliefs, punish rule-violators, and focus on our legacy (our non-extinction) by adhering to our culture’s path of enduring significance: celebrity, heroic deeds, descendants, and memorials. Culture was developed to create meaning from nothing – to firm up a self-image that we believe will let our “soul” live beyond our death. Terror Management Theory (TMT) is a growing field in social psychology that examines how thoughts of one’s mortality affect decision-making:

“When thoughts of death are activated outside of consciousness, it’s not that people become more existential in their thinking since they’re not thinking about death at all. Rather, they bolster the psychological resources that they have learned to use to cope with the existential problem of death, their worldview and sense of significance. And so when death is close to mind — after watching an action flick, hearing about a celebrity death, reading about an act of terrorism online, noting a weird spot or new wrinkle, driving past a cemetery — people become more adamant in their beliefs and get extra-motivated to distance themselves from their physicality and to assert their symbolic value — their intellect, achievements, and so forth. They increase prejudice and aggression against others who are different. They reject the physical aspects of sex, avoid bodily activities, and use euphemisms for them. They show off their skills, smarts, fitness, and generosity. And indeed research has shown all of these things.” – Hans Villarica, “How the Unrelenting Threat of Death Shapes Our Behavior.”

There is even evidence for how Terror Management Theory improves athletic performance.

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