Dealing with Death in Later Life: Terror Management Perspectives on Aging

Keywords: mortality salience; terror management theory; aging

The transitions from youth to middle age to late life tend to be subtle. Rarely do we identify the point at which we become “old.” Of course, by middle age we may have days when we feel old; when joints ache or memory fails us. But Oliver Wendell Holmes’ sentiment that “Old age is fifteen years older than I am” accurately conveys the sense that we are prone to think others are old, not me. Despite the fact that the internal self may feel as young as ever, the external self is inevitably altered with age: New diagnoses are given, medications prescribed, bodies weakened, and the losses experienced are followed by funerals attended. In many ways then, our own bodies, as well as the aging of friends and family, become reminders of mortality and life’s unavoidable end. Intellectually, death is accepted as part of life, but increasing signs of age and its many side effects, result in much more personally salient and powerful cues that life is finite and coming closer to its end.


Terror management theory

Terror management theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986) posits that whether young or old, people have to, in some way, deny the reality of death as an ultimate end. Based on the writings of Ernest Becker (1973), the theory proposes that the biological predisposition toward continued survival, which we share with other animals, has the potential to create overwhelming anxiety in humans because we are uniquely aware of our vulnerable and mortal nature – we know that we ultimately will not survive, and further that our survival could be terminated at any time by a host of threats beyond our control. Fortunately, rather than living under the weight of overwhelming death-related anxiety, most people develop ways of minimizing their potential to experience such existential dread. People do so by maintaining faith in a meaningful worldview in which they play a significant part. Individuals feel they are playing a significant part in the world when they are living up to the standards of value of their worldview; from this perspective, self-esteem is the feeling that one is a significant contributor to a meaningful world. The meaningful conception of reality and sense of value we derive from it help manage the potential for existential terror by giving us the sense that we are enduring beings in a permanent, meaningful reality, rather than mere animals fated only to perish entirely upon physical death. By having an everlasting soul or making a permanent impact on the world, we can feel like physical death is not the end; rather, our symbolic identity will live on.

The most heavily researched hypothesis derived from TMT is based on the idea that if faith in one’s cultural worldview and self-esteem serve as buffers from existential anxiety, then with greater awareness of death, people will become increasingly likely to behave in ways that bolster their cultural worldview and self-worth. In other words, awareness of mortality initiates processes to manage existential terror; specifically, affirmation of one’s values, beliefs, and sources of meaning, as well as one’s own self-worth. To test hypotheses derived from this analysis, researchers have people think about their own mortality, referred to as a mortality salience induction. Researchers have increased mortality salience in many ways: asking open-ended or true/false questions about their own mortality, exposure to subliminally presented death-related words, viewing video footage of fatal automobile accidents, encountering death-related words in a word search puzzle, or walking past a funeral home. To ensure that effects are due to reminders of mortality and not simply a response to anything that is unpleasant, various control conditions are used for comparison. Among the many aversive topics that have been used, studies have included such topics as have included going to the dentist, taking an upcoming exam, dental pain, experiencing intense unpredictable pain, uncertainty, failure, social isolation, meaninglessness, and becoming paralyzed. All are unpleasant to experience but unrelated to death, and the vast majority of studies shows they don’t produce the same effects as reminders of death.

Younger adults exposed to these primes of death become increasingly defensive and protective of their cultural worldview and self-worth. To illustrate, younger adults reminded of death show increased self-esteem striving via increased effort on ego relevant tasks and attributions that are more self-serving (e.g., Mikulincer & Florian, 2002; Peters, Greenberg, Williams, & Schneider, 2005) and increased defensiveness of the cultural worldview via derogation (Florian & Mikulincer, 1997) and aggression toward people who challenge their cultural values (McGregor et al., 1998).

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