Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Someday, I will die. But should I? If I was offered a longer life, I would take that in a second. But how long is too long? Is death something I should deny forever, or is death and the role it plays in the universe something I am better off accepting? I want to start by looking at a particular way death affects how we live and treat one another. Terror Management Theory proposes that people like you and me manage the terror of death's inevitability by embracing cultural values. That the more aware a person is of their own mortality, the more vehemently they will enforce their particular views of the world onto others. Created by social psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, Terror Management Theory, or TMT, suggests that, often, we are afraid of change because we're afraid of death. Each one of us has a worldview, a set of beliefs, customs and norms we identify with that can live on after our physical bodies die. TMT suggest that rises in nationalism and prejudice are correlated with rises in the salience of mortality. That is, how present the inevitability of death is in people's minds. Now this role that death plays fascinates me, and two of TMT's originators, Jeff and Sheldon, have agreed to work with me on a pilot study of Terror Management Theory and real-life reminders of death. What's your hypothesis today? Well, I think we're going to hope for the participants who are reminded of their mortality to be more punitive in their assessments. See what happens. For our study, we created a fake research center, staffed by actors, and invited participants to be a part of what they were told was a focus group about the criminal justice system. During the actual study, each group will hear a list of several different crimes that have been committed, and will then be asked to propose a punishment for each offender with a severity level ranging from 1 to 7, with 1 being the most lenient and 7 being the most severe. The control group will simply enter the survey room and be asked to answer the questions. The experimental group, however, will first be exposed to reminders of their own mortality with strategically placed posters in the lobby. Also, the questionnaires they fill out will include questions about their own death. Decades of TMT research have shown that when presented with violations of common worldviews, those who are more aware of their own deaths will recommend bigger punishments for the crimes presented. But will our real life reminders of death, not just the survey questions usually used, make a difference? Well, first, let's look at the control participants. [woman] Well, thank you so much for being here. Now, I cannot emphasize this enough. There are no right or wrong answers. This is just about your gut-level reactions. All right, let's begin. After raising millions of dollars in grant money to fund education for needy children, a fundraising manager unhappy with this life fled with all the money and was arrested months later in Tasmania, where he was living under a different name. So, 1, least punishment: three months in prison; 7 is most severe: ten years in prison. Please answer now. This is one that I think does have worldviews on both sides. [Michael] That is a lot of 7s. If our control group is already maxing out like that, well, then our scale has no room in that direction to show any effect of mortality salience. Discovering issues like this, learning how to better isolate mortality salience's effect, is exactly what a pilot test is for. Hey, personal differences, huh? [woman] An imposter with no medical training posed as a surgeon and bungled a minor operation to remove a child's tonsils. The patient recovered fully after additional treatment. 1 is six months on probation, 7 is ten years in prison. [Sheldon] Okay. If you are taking on the persona of a doctor, we would expect good behavior. [woman] The surgeon botched the operation and was found to be under the influence of narcotics, causing her to have permanent hoarseness and ruining her career. A 16-year-old girl who had just received her license drove through a red light, hitting another car that was being driven by a talented pianist. A couple was taking their two children to the playground when they saw a woman sunbathing nude. Look at that. There could be a gender gap. We're also learning a lot about the worldviews people have. [Jeff] Yeah, absolutely. An anti-government protester was arrested for spray-painting profanities at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 1: 40 hours... Wow, she went 1 right away. She's not a fan of authority and rules. [Sheldon] Yeah. Okay, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it. All right, so here's the results in a mathematical analysis. These are averages per question. These are the averages and medians per participant. [Jeff] The 4s are great. The 3's great. But this is ground for optimism, at least. [Michael] 7 was the max sentencing value, and our control group gave an average of 4.5. I'm really happy with that as a control group. Absolutely. Now, our experimental groups. Remember, they will be seeing posters that remind them of their own mortality, and will be asked different questions in their questionnaire. For example... The point is to prime their mortality salience. Let's see if this group is more punitive towards worldview violations. After raising millions of dollars to fund education for needy children, a fundraising manager fled with all the money and was arrested months later in Tasmania. 1: three months in prison; 7: ten years in prison. Please answer now. Okay, he's thinking about it. Please hold up your answers. All right. Thank you so much. Ah, okay. [woman] An imposter with no medical training posed as a surgeon and bungled a minor operation to remove a child's tonsils. 1: six months on probation; 7: ten years in prison. -They are thinking a lot more. -Yeah. -[Sheldon] Wow. -[Michael] A 10. I'm pretty sure she knows that 7 is the highest. [Jeff] We'll call it a 7. It's funny to see when people feel bold enough, even though I'm breaking the bounds and the rules of the task. An anti-government protester was arrested for spray-painting profanities at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. [Sheldon] I really do appreciate the way they clearly seem to be taking a bit more time -to deliberate. -Yeah. Okay, they can put the papers down, and tell them that we will be in shortly. [woman] Okay, thank you so much. We've finished with this part of the study. So if you won't mind hanging out for a moment, and our researchers will be in here in a moment to ask you a couple questions. [Michael] Let's find out if the reminders of mortality we showed our experimental group were salient enough. [Jeff] Let me ask you about one thing. Out in the waiting room, did you all notice the posters at all? [woman] Yes, they are all death-related. Okay. All right. Yeah. -That's right. -[all laugh] So we are looking into something that's called Terror Management Theory. And it's the idea that your own awareness of your mortality can affect the behaviors that you exhibit. That we all manage the terror that we feel knowing that we are mortal, by behaving in certain ways, especially in ways that reinforce our own worldviews. Because we could kind of live on through the societies and cultures and identities that we have today. [Jeff] Did any of you feel like you were still thinking a little bit about death when you came in here? I was definitely going after people who transgressed against my worldview, to use your term. -Yes, I noticed that. -I was definitely doing that. [Michael] So this was incredibly helpful. -[Jeff] Yeah. -[Michael] Thank you very much. [Jeff] Thanks so much. I appreciate. [Michael] It looks like our experimental stimuli were successful. They were salient, but didn't cause the participants to think they were related to the study. The control participants averaged about 4.5. The experimental participants were close to 4.7, if we round up. So there's a slight tendency for the experimental people to be leaning in the direction that we predicted. But we're talking about relatively inconsequential differences. That's right. It just makes me hungry to run more people. And with the number that we had, that's statistically insignificant. Do you think that we did see any effects of mortality salience today? [Jeff] I feel like the mortality salient groups tended to think a little longer before responding. Yeah, me too. [Jeff] And they seemed more thoughtful. -They were really-- -They put more effort into it, into trying to do the right thing. The difference was dramatic enough that we picked up on it. -Absolutely. -Although our stimuli might need to go through more passes and more vetting, we did find an interesting difference in the time it took for our groups to respond. Our control group took an average of 4 minutes and 46 seconds to decide on their punishments, but our experimental group took an average of 7 minutes, 18 seconds. In a sense, that really is the prediction. The right thing by their own worldview, but by the same token, when we think about death, we want to do what's right. And if we're acting like jurors, we want to make the right decisions. As we very much learned today, the goal isn't to prove one thing one way or the other. It's just to reduce uncertainty... -That's correct. -...in the most careful way. Absolutely. To know a little bit more today than yesterday. [Jeff] Yeah. [Michael] Our pilot test shows that there's still a lot to discover about terror management and many promising ways to do it. I'm particularly intrigued by our observation that for all the closed-mindedness mortality salience appears to cause, it also lead to what looked like increased consideration and thought. I'd love to see more research on that idea. But the point is this: if death's effects aren't all entirely bad, what if, instead of, or at least at the same time that we hope for the abolition of natural death, we also find a way to accept it?