In one experiment, the psychologists asked a group of Christian students to give their impressions of the personalities of two people. In all relevant respects, these two people were very similar – except one was a fellow Christian and the other Jewish. Under normal circumstances, participants showed no inclination to treat the two people differently. But if the students were first reminded of their mortality (e.g., by being asked to fill in a personality test that included questions about their attitude to their own death) then they were much more positive about their fellow Christian and more negative about the Jew.
The researchers behind this work – Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski – were testing the hypothesis that most of what we do we do in order to protect us from the terror of death; what they call “Terror Management Theory.” Our sophisticated worldviews, they believe, exist primarily to convince us that we can defeat the Reaper. Therefore when he looms, scythe in hand, we cling all the more firmly to the shield of our beliefs.
This research, now spanning over 400 studies, shows what poets and philosophers have long known: that it is our struggle to defy death that gives shape to our civilization. (…)
The psychologists, psychiatrists and anthropologists who developed Terror Management Theory have shown that almost all ideologies, from patriotism to communism to celebrity culture, function similarly in shielding us from death’s approach. (…)
In one now classic secular example, the researchers recruited court judges from Tucson in the USA. Half of these judges were reminded of their mortality (again with the otherwise innocuous personality test) and half were not. They were then all asked to rule on a hypothetical case of prostitution similar to those they ruled on every day. The judges who had first been reminded of their mortality set a bond (the equivalent of bail) nine times higher than those who hadn’t (averaging $455 compared to $50). So just like the Christians, they reacted to the thought of death by clinging more fiercely to their worldview.