We’re All Gonna Die

Death may be inescapable, but we do our best to avoid thinking about it. Psychologist Sheldon Solomon says we’re not very successful though. This week on Hidden Brain, we confront how death anxiety courses through our actions, even when we don’t realize it.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.


From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


VEDANTAM: We begin today with a tale of a man known as a miser, a man so unmoved by the plight of others that he has become synonymous with greed and selfishness. His name was Ebenezer Scrooge.


MICHAEL GOUGH: (As Mr. Poole) Mr. Scrooge, I presume.

GEORGE C SCOTT: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Indeed you do, sir.

VEDANTAM: Scrooge, of course, was a character in Charles Dickens' famous story "A Christmas Carol." And, yes, I know it's not Christmas but stay with me a moment.


SCOTT: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Humbug.

VEDANTAM: In this 1984 film version of the story, Scrooge refuses to give money to a charity that's helping the poor.


SCOTT: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) My taxes help to support the public institutions which I have mentioned. And they cost enough. Those who are badly off must go there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Many can't go there, and many would rather die.

SCOTT: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) If they would rather die, perhaps they had better do so and decrease the surplus population.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Surely you don't mean...

VEDANTAM: Scrooge is visited one night by some unwelcome guests who push him to question his outlook. They're ghosts. The first two remind him about his past and present and ask him to embrace the Christmas spirit. It's to no avail. Scrooge cares more about his money than his community. But then he's visited by a third ghost who shows him his future - a grave.


VEDANTAM: Terrified of the prospect of his own death, Scrooge begs the ghost to allow him to make amends.


SCOTT: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Dear me, I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this visitation. Why show me this?

VEDANTAM: He promises to become kind and generous, to care about his community, to embrace the Christmas spirit. Moments later, he wakes up.


SCOTT: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) I'm alive. Oh, thank you, spirit. I will keep my promise.

VEDANTAM: Here's why we're revisiting the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. We tend to think of "A Christmas Carol" as a parable about the dangers of shutting our hearts to other people, but there's another lesson that comes from the story. It's a lesson about death.


VEDANTAM: It was the fear of death that caused Scrooge to change his ways, and there is a great psychological truth in that story. Many of us shy away from consciously thinking about death. But it turns out, death still figures in our minds far more often than most of us realize, and these thoughts produce an extraordinary range of human responses, from the kind and generous to the strange and absurd. How thoughts of death shape our lives - this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.


VEDANTAM: When Sheldon Solomon was 8 years old, his mother told him about death.

SHELDON SOLOMON: This was the day before my grandmother died of cancer. And I remember my mom saying to me, oh, say goodbye to Grandma because she's very ill. And I knew that, but then she died the next day. And I just remember because I was looking at postage stamps that I collected at the time of dead presidents, and I was like, wow. Washington's dead. Jefferson's dead. Grandma's dead.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SOLOMON: That would all be fine except for me being on deck in the long run.

VEDANTAM: Sheldon realized that, one day, his time would also come. Decades later, that story reemerged in his life. He was a young professor at Skidmore College. He was searching for a book in the library when something in the Freud section caught his eye.

SOLOMON: It was a book by a recently deceased cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, and that one was called "The Birth And Death Of Meaning." And in the first paragraph, Becker says, I want to understand what makes people act the way they do. And I said, oh, me, too. Finally somebody not writing in turgid jargon that's a non-pharmacological intervention for insomnia.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SOLOMON: Just asking a straightforward question - you know, what makes people act the way that they do?

VEDANTAM: Sheldon saw more books on the shelf by the same author.

SOLOMON: So I grabbed the next book, "The Denial Of Death" and, again, the first paragraph Becker writes, the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else. It is a mainspring of human activity. And in my gut, that brought me way back to being 8 years old. I knew that that statement was at the very least true for my own life, and I suspected that it was true for most folks as well.


VEDANTAM: Sheldon reached out to two friends, Tom Pyszczynski and Jeff Greenberg. Like him, they were young psychologists. All three of them fell in love with Ernest Becker's books. The central idea that captivated them was that people construct mental defenses to ward off the fear of death. The three psychologists wrote up a paper elaborating on this concept. They would eventually call this idea terror management theory. They sent off their paper to a top journal, certain they were going to rock the world of psychology.

SOLOMON: We didn't hear anything for about six months. And then we got a review and the paper was rejected with a one-sentence review. The reviewer said something along the lines of, I have no doubt that these ideas are of no interest whatsoever to any psychologist, alive or dead.


VEDANTAM: So this is a bit of a blow.

SOLOMON: Well, Jeff and Tom said, oh, I don't think they like it. And being even more immature than they, I said, no, they love it. They're just being coy.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SOLOMON: But it turns out they weren't because the same paper was then rejected at almost every psychology journal.

VEDANTAM: Sometime later, the researchers ran into the president of the American Psychological Association at a conference and they asked him why the paper had been rejected.

SOLOMON: And we just said, hey, we think these are good ideas. To which he replied, they might be, but psychology is an empirical discipline. You guys are experimental psychologists. And so why not try to gather evidence in support of Becker's claims? And it was in response to that suggestion that we generated what we call terror management theory, which is basically just our effort to take all of Becker's ideas and to generate hypotheses that we could subject to empirical scrutiny.

VEDANTAM: So one of the criticisms of Becker, as you've alluded to a second ago, is that his work was not empirical. He was making claims that he didn't have evidence for. He was making these intuitive leaps involving logic and philosophy, but they weren't based on empirical data, on experimentation. And you set out to try and fix that. One of your first experiments involved judges in Tucson who were dealing with prostitutes. Tell me about the study and what it found.

SOLOMON: Sure. Certainly. So, you know, in a nutshell what terror management theory states is that the uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to potentially debilitating existential terror that we manage, hence the term terror management, by embracing culturally constructed belief systems that give us each a sense that life has meaning and we have value. And as you said, what people said back in the days in the 1980s is, well, you know, this is philosophical and psychoanalytic speculation. What we reasoned is that if Becker is right, if our beliefs about reality serve to minimize death anxiety, well, let's see what happens if we remind some people of their own mortality - because what should happen is they should cling more tenaciously to their beliefs.

So the first study was done on municipal court judges in Tucson, Ariz. I think we had about 30 judges, and we randomly divided them into two groups. Half of the judges were reminded of their mortality by, in the middle of a bunch of questionnaires, being asked to just write down their thoughts and feelings about their own mortality. And then we showed them an actual court case of an alleged prostitute, which was the most common crime in Tucson's municipal court at the time, and we just asked them, well, how much bail would you set? That's the amount of money that you have to pay to not be imprisoned until your trial. So what we found is in the control condition, the judges set an average bail of $50, and that was good because that was the average bail for that crime at the time. However, the judges reminded that they were going to die, they set a nine times higher bail, an average of $455.

And what was astonishing is not only the magnitude of that difference but also the vociferousness of the judges' resistance when we told them at the end of the study what we had done. They just said, there's no way that your idiot death questionnaire could have in any way altered the way that I adjudicated this particular case. So I guess the take home message is if you're going to court for a traffic ticket, you better hope that the judge hasn't driven...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SOLOMON: ...Past the cemetery on the way to court that day.


VEDANTAM: It might be difficult to see how this is connected to Ernest Becker's ideas, so let's slow down a minute. The central idea of terror management theory is that we cope with the fear of death by constructing mental defenses. Those defenses, Sheldon and his co-authors found, tend to fall into a couple of patterns. The first main line of defense when we are prompted to think about death is to retreat into cultural safe havens - our religions, our communities, our values. The idea here is that by immersing ourselves in the language and norms of our cultural groups, we become part of something that is less mortal - the groups that will outlive us. When the judges were reminded of their mortality, they became in a way more conservative in their morality. They sought to punish women who had broken the norms of their culture.

Of course, there could be other explanations for this behavior, so Sheldon and his co-authors decided to conduct a new experiment. They reasoned that if they were right, the same forces driving judges to treat sex workers harshly would also produce another effect. When people are reminded of death, they should also want to reward those who exemplify the norms of the community.

SOLOMON: If somebody does something that's in accord with your belief system, then being reminded of death should make you like them more. So in a subsequent study, we had participants either think about themselves dying or something unpleasant, and then we showed them a newspaper article about a citizen who thwarted a bank robbery. And we just asked them, well, how much monetary reward should the citizen receive? In the control condition, it was about a thousand dollars and, in the death condition, it was over $3,000.

VEDANTAM: So I want to talk about a couple of other studies as well, just to lay out the terrain here. And what's interesting is that these studies have been conducted in many different countries. You once asked Germans about their preferences in food, cars and vacations. And some were interviewed in a retail setting. And others were interviewed in front of a cemetery. What did you find?

SOLOMON: Yes, this is a great study for a few reasons. We didn't do it. And that makes it better because when other researchers can replicate your findings, that's always important for scientific purposes. It also used a very clever manipulation. And so one way that we remind people that they're going to die is to just ask them how they feel about it. A more subtle way is to stop people either in front of a funeral parlor or a hundred meters to either side. And our thought was that if you're in front of a funeral parlor, particularly in Germany, where they often have embalmed corpses in the window, well, death should be on your mind, even if it's hidden from your own awareness. And sure enough, Germans reminded of their mortality become more supportive of buying German goods. They also sit closer to fellow Germans and further away from other folks who look like Turkish immigrants.

VEDANTAM: So one of the things that, I think, would surprise people is not the thesis that death is terrifying but the idea that the terror of death has such widespread ramifications and effects in our lives. And I'm wondering if you could just address this. In some ways, it is a form of criticism of your theory. It's one thing to say, yes, you know, we have concerns about death. But how do you go from there to saying that this actually has a profound role in almost everything that we think, say and do?

SOLOMON: Yeah. You know, people dismissed Becker for being broad to the point of grandiose when he said that anxiety about death is essentially the central driver of what it is that motivates us as human beings. When you talk to people about Becker's ideas, they'll be like, this is crazy. I don't think about death all the time. And Becker's view is that you don't think about death all the time because you're comfortably embedded in your cultural world view in a way that buffers you from death anxiety by virtue of the fact that you feel like you're a person of value in a world of meaning.


VEDANTAM: The idea here is that even though the anxiety about death is ever present, we are largely oblivious to it because our mental defenses are strong. We soothe ourselves with our anthems and our rituals and our conviction that our religion is the best. One way these defenses are breached is when we come into contact with people different than us; people who have their own beliefs. Now we must either accept that beliefs are just that - beliefs - or we must try to establish that our beliefs are better.

SOLOMON: If your beliefs about reality serve to minimize death anxiety, well, then when you run into somebody who's different, that's a problem because if I accept, let's say, the Fulani in Mali who say the Earth was created out of a giant drop of milk, well, that undermines the veracity of the Judeo-Christian account, where God created heaven and Earth in six days. What Becker said, therefore, is that when we encounter people who are different, we tend to belittle them. We tend to try to convince or coerce them to dispose of their ideas, or we just kill them, thus proving that our god and our ideas are better after all.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, we explore how these ideas play out in politics.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We've seen how people respond to the fear of death by clinging more tightly to aspects of that culture. Sheldon Solomon and other terror management theorists also find that people have a second kind of response to the fear of death. They find ways to boost their own self-esteem. Besides saying, my culture is superior, my nation is the best, my religion is the most profound, they also say, I'm the best. I'm better looking than other people. I'm smarter. I'm richer.

SOLOMON: We call it self-esteem striving. And so, for example, I think, the first study was by Aldrete Taubman Ben-Ari in Israel, and the participants were Israeli soldiers. And they measured the extent to which the soldier's self-esteem was based on their driving prowess. I don't know if you've been to Israel, but they are very maniacal. I say this with...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SOLOMON: ...Love and respect. And then they put them on a driving simulator, and they measured how fast and how recklessly the soldiers drove. And, again, the good news is in the controlled condition, the soldiers drove quite modestly. But when they were reminded of their mortality first, the soldiers whose self-esteem was based on their driving skills, they drove faster and more recklessly. Other studies have shown that skin divers reminded of their mortality - they say they would stay underwater in more dangerous weather or when they were running out of oxygen. People who value their basketball skill - when they're reminded of their mortality, they actually shoot better at the foul line. People that think they're strong - if you give them something to squeeze when you remind them of their mortality, they actually squeeze harder. So these are just different demonstrations that we shore up our self-esteem in response to existential anxieties.

VEDANTAM: Isn't there something ironic about the studies involving the skin divers and the Israeli drivers where reminders of mortality caused people to act in ways that increase their risk for mortality?

SOLOMON: Yes. Is that not poignant? We wrote a book chapter once, "Death Can Be Hazardous To Your Health," and our point was very simply that. Because our primary goal psychologically is to maintain a sense of meaning and value, there are times when we will do that even at the expense of our physical safety.

So one of the studies that our students Jamie Goldenberg and Jamie Arndt did is really remarkable, where they showed that when people in Florida whose self-esteem is dependent on their appearance in a world where being tan is considered beautiful - well, when those folks were reminded of their mortality, a few minutes later, when they were asked, oh, next time, you go to the beach, how long will you stay in the sun? And what kind of sunscreen will you use? Well, those folks said they would stay out longer and use weaker sunscreen. So here, they are trying to boost self-esteem in a way that could ultimately terminate them with cancer.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if one of the insights in these studies is that what we're really trying to avoid is actually not death but the fear of death, and it's interesting and instructive that you've named your theory terror management theory as opposed to death management theory. It's not about avoiding death. It's about avoiding the fear of death.

SOLOMON: Yes. I think you're quite right. But in fairness to Becker, he says at the beginning of "The Denial Of Death" that death is, in fact, a complex, multi-dimensional construct. And people fear it, he claimed. We all do, but we may fear it for different reasons, and there is good evidence to suggest that, for some, it's really not the prospect of being dead. The real horror is to be privy to the moments when we're in the process of that transition itself.

VEDANTAM: So in other words, it's the dying, not the death, that actually is the source of the terror.

SOLOMON: Yes. At least, I think that's the case for me, although there are times when I think, oh, no. I really - I want to have it both ways. I don't want to be dead or be dying, but I do - I am compelled by the - I think it's the Epicureans who said, well, you know, there were people here for eons before we got here, and nobody's ever worried about that. But almost every one of us has a hard time imagining a world in the future that wouldn't include us. And why should that bother us? And yeah, I think when I'm really dead, that won't bother me so much. It's the getting there in the first place.

VEDANTAM: What does terror management theory predict about the kind of leaders that we are drawn to, Sheldon?

SOLOMON: Yes. Terror management theory predicts that when existential anxieties are aroused, we are more likely - and when I say we, I mean all of us - are more likely to embrace what the sociologist Max Weber called a charismatic leader.


GEORGE W BUSH: Thank you all.

SOLOMON: So in the aftermath of September 11, we argued based on our studies that it was our own existential anxieties that attracted Americans to President Bush.


BUSH: This nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens.

SOLOMON: And then if we fast forward to 2015, 2016, Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency saying, look. Illegal swarms are coming over the southern border.


DONALD TRUMP: They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us.

SOLOMON: Terrorists are going to come into the United States, and they're going to kill us. And he said, look. I am the only one who can keep you safe. I'm going to make America great again. So we did studies in 2015 and '16. American respondents reminded of death were more supportive of President Trump - now-president Trump - and said they were more likely to vote for him when they were reminded of their mortality. When it became evident that Donald Trump was running against Hillary Clinton, we found the respondents preferred Clinton to Trump in a psychologically benign state of mind, but if they were reminded of their mortality first, their enthusiasm and support for President Trump was substantially increased.

And then, moreover, we did other studies where we showed that just asking an American to think about a mosque being built in their neighborhood or an immigrant moving into their town - that that was sufficient to make unconscious death thoughts come more readily to mind, and that, in turn, increased support for now President Trump. And this is important because President Trump doesn't have death reminders in his rallies, and so one might wonder, well, how is this of practical significance? Well, the fact is that he doesn't have to. Just keeping immigration and terrorism and the idea that the Chinese and every other country, for the most part, are a mortal threat to us by virtue of their aggressive trade practices, all of that, whether the president is aware of it or not, serves to maintain a high level of death anxiety. And that, in turn, serves to maintain greater support for a charismatic leader.

VEDANTAM: There seems to be so much in the current political moment that reflects some of the themes that we've talked about. When I think about partisanship, for example, I think of people who want to stick to their tribe because the tribe has long offered protection against death and other threats.

SOLOMON: Absolutely. We are fundamentally tribal animals, for better and worse. And what's problematic and potentially catastrophic - not to sound too histrionic - but we're at a point where we have lost track of our overriding commonality as Americans. And this does run the risk of our partisan identities, if push comes to proverbial shove, taking precedent over what's best for us as citizens of the country itself.

VEDANTAM: You've done some work looking at how liberals and conservatives behave toward one another in an experiment that involves hot sauce. Tell me about that study.

SOLOMON: So we had liberal and conservative participants who thought they were working with a liberal or conservative partner. And then they learned that their partner didn't like spicy foods, and they were told, well, OK, you're going to eat some crackers and rate how you like them. And your partner's going to eat some hot sauce, and you get to determine how much hot sauce they're going to have to eat. And they have to eat all of it, and then rate how pleasant it was. All right. So in the control condition, it didn't matter whether the person you were working with shared your beliefs or not. You gave them the same amount of hot sauce.

On the other hand, if you were reminded of dying first, you gave the same amount of sauce to the partner if they shared your politics. But if they didn't, you gave them twice as much. And we confirmed that this was an aggressive reaction by talking to the participants afterwards. They didn't know that it had anything to do with being reminded of their mortality. But when we said, did you know that you were essentially dosing these folks because they didn't like hot sauce, they're like, you're darn right we are.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering what it's like for you personally, Sheldon, to have spent so much of your career thinking about a cheery topic like death. Has it changed the way you thought about mortality yourself?

SOLOMON: Yeah. I would like to think so, but I can't say for sure. We - we meaning Jeff and Tom and I - have joked but quite seriously that terror management theory has spared us the necessity of directly confronting our own existential anxieties because by turning it into an intellectual exercise, it really does distance us a bit. And I like to think that coming along and that I'm a little bit more accurate in my own self reflections when I ask myself from time to time, well, why are you doing things? Is it just to feel better about yourself in order to manage anxiety? Or is this something that more genuinely represents directions that I would like to take for their own sake? So I hope I'm making progress.


VEDANTAM: Sheldon Solomon is a psychology professor at Skidmore College. Along with Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, he is the co-author of "The Worm At The Core: On The Role Of Death In Life." Sheldon, thank you for joining me on HIDDEN BRAIN today.

SOLOMON: Thank you so much. It was great.


VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Rhaina Cohen and edited by Tara Boyle and Jenny Schmidt. Our team includes Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu. Our unsung hero this week is listener Sue Gorski (ph). Sue is a middle school science teacher. This summer, she wanted to revitalize the rock garden beds around her house by cleaning each stone by hand. It was a time-consuming and solitary task, so Sue made HIDDEN BRAIN her companion. In an email, she wrote (reading) on my first day, I started listening to HIDDEN BRAIN Episode 1. What remains to be seen is if I will run out of podcasts or rocks first. What a joy to be able to spend the summer with you.

Thanks for letting us be a part of your summer, Sue. Notes like yours have always been a big source of encouragement. If you have a friend in the midst of a long rock garden project, or any other kind of project that calls for companionship, please choose your favorite episode of HIDDEN BRAIN and share it with them. We really appreciate it. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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