We're All Gonna Die!


From NPR this is hidden brain. I'm Sean Covey. Donald 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 Ebeneezer Scrooge Mister Scrooge. I presume indeed user screws 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 in this one thousand nine hundred four film version of the story scrooge refuses to give money money to a charity. That's helping the poor taxes help to support the public institutions which I've mentioned and they cost enough those who are badly off must go there can't go there and many would rather die if they would rather die they had to do so and decrease the surplus population scrooge visited one night by some unwelcome guests who push him to question his outlook there goes the first to remind him him about his past and present and ask him to embrace the Christmas spirit. It's to no avail. SCROOGE CASS more about his money then his community but then he's visited by third ghost who shows in his future grave terrified of the prospect his own death scrooge begs the ghost to allow him to make amends. I will not be I must have been what visitation he promises to become kind and generous to care about is community to embrace the Christmas spirit moments later he wakes up thank you. I will keep my promise. Here's why we're revisiting the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge. We tend to think of a Christmas Carol as a parable about the dangers of shutting our hearts to other the people but there's another lesson that comes from the story. It's a lesson about death it. It was the fear of death that caused cruise to change his ways and there is a great psychological truth in that story. Oy many of shy away from consciously thinking about death but it turns out death still figures in our minds far are 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 inch and absurd how thoughts of death shape our lives this week on hidden brain aw support for NPR comes from national car rental who wants you to know that with a membership in our complimentary Emerald Club you can skip the counter and and choose any car in the aisle at participating national locations. You can even select an upgrade without paying extra learn more at national car dot com slash. NPR When Sheldon Solomon was eight years old his mother told him about death. This was the day before my grandmother other died of cancer and I remember my mom sank to me. Oh say goodbye to grandma because she's very ill and I knew that but then she died ride the next day and I just remember because I was looking at postage snaps that I collected at the time of dead presidents and I was like Wow Washington stead Jefferson's Jefferson's dead grandma step that would be fine except for me being on duck in the long run sheldon realize 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 fraud section caught his eye but was a book by a recently deceased cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker and that one was called the birth and death of meaning than 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 turgid jargon. That's a non pharmacological intervention for insomnia just asking a straightforward straightforward question you know what makes people act the way that they do show some more books on the shelf by the same author site grab the next book the denial Nihil of Death and again the first paragraph Becca writes the idea of death. The fear of it haunts the human animal like nothing else else. It is a main spring of human activity and in my gut that brought me way back to being eight years old I I I knew that that statement was at the very least true for my own life and suspected that it was true for most folks looks as well. Sheldon reached out to friends. Tom Presents key and Jeff Greenburg like him. They were young psychologists. All three of them fell in love with Ernest Becker books. The central idea captivated them was that people construct mental defenses to ward it 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. We didn't hear anything for about six months and then we got the review in the paper was rejected with a one sentence review. The reviewer said something along the lines of I have no doubt that that these ideas are of no interest whatsoever any psychologists alive or dead so this is a bit of a blow well well Jeff and Tom said Oh. I don't think they like it and be an even more immature than they. I said no they love it. They're just being coy but it turns out they weren't because the same paper was then rejected at almost every psychology journal sometime in later the researchers ran into the president of the American Psychological Association at a conference and the asked him why the people had been rejected and we just said hey we you think these are good ideas to which he replied they might be but psychology is an empirical discipline. you guys are experimental. Boura mountains psychologists and so why not try to gather evidence in support of Bekker's claims and it was in response onced to that suggestion that we generated what we call terror management theory which is basically just our effort to take all of Bekker's is ideas to generate hypotheses that we could subject to empirical scrutiny so one of the criticisms of Becker as you 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 these intuitive leaps involving logic and philosophy but they won't based John on empirical data and experimentation and and you set out to try and fix that one of your first experiments involve judges in Tucson Hooah dealing with prostitutes prostitutes. Tell me about the study what found sure certainly so you know a nutshell. What terror management theory states is that the uniquely glee human awareness of death gives rise potentially debilitating existential terror that we manage hence the term terror management management by embracing culturally constructed belief systems that give us each a sense that life has meaning and we have value and as you? I said what would people said back in the days in the nineteen eighties as well you know this is philosophical and psychoanalytic speculation. What we reason does is that if becker is right if our beliefs about reality serve to minimize death anxiety won't let's see what happens if we remind that some people of their own mortality because what should happen is they should cling more likely to their beliefs so the first study was is done on municipal court judges in Tucson Arizona. I think we had about thirty judges and we randomly divided them into two groups have for the judges 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 mortality and then we show them actual court case of an alleged prostitute which was the most common crime. Tucson's municipal court at the time and we just ask 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 roll condition. The judges set an average bail of fifty dollars and that was good because that was the average bail for that crime at the time however the judge is reminded that they were going to die. they set a nine times higher bail an average of four hundred and fifty five dollars in what was astonishing is not only the magnitude of that difference but also the vociferousness 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 could have in any way altered the way that. I objected this particular case so I guess the tail message as if you're going to court for a traffic ticket you better hope that the judge hasn't driven past the summit. Jerry on the way to court that day it might be difficult to see how this is connected to onus Bekker's ideas so let's slow down a minute. The central idea of terror management theory is 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. What's the first main line of defense when we have prompted to think about death is to retreat into cultural safe havens all religions our our communities our values the idea here is that by immersing ourselves in the language and norms of our cultural groups we we become part of something that is less mortal the groups that will outlive us when the judges were reminded of them tally they became in a way more conservative conservative in their morality. This sought to punish women who had broken the norms of their culture of course they could be other explanations for this behavior so sheldon co-authors decided to conduct a new experiment the reason that if they will write the same forces driving judges to treat sex workers harshly would also produce another effect when people are reminded of death. This should also want to reward those who exemplify by the norms of the community. If somebody does something that's in accord with your belief system then being reminded of death should make you like them more pursuing 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 rewards should the citizen receive in the control all condition it was about a thousand dollars and in the death condition. It was over three thousand dollars so I WANNA talk about a couple of other the 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 wants US Germans about their preferences in food food cars and vacations and some were interviewed in a retail setting and others were interviewed in front of a cemetery. What did you what did you find yes. This is a great study. for few reasons we didn't do it and that makes it better because when other researchers can replicate your findings that's always important written for scientific purposes it also used a very clever manipulation and so one way the we remind people that they're going to die as to it. Just ask them how they feel about it. A more subtle way is to stop people either in front of a funeral parlor or hundred meters to either side are thought was is that if you're in front of a funeral parlor particularly in Germany where they often have embalmed corpses in the window will death should be on your mind and even if it's hidden from your own awareness and sure enough Germans reminded of their mortality but come more supportive of of buying German goods they also sit closer to fellow Germans and further away from other folks who look like Turkish immigrants 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 nations 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 breath. But how do you go from there to saying that. This actually has a profound role in almost everything that we think Sandu Yeah people dismissed backer acker for being broad to the point of grandiose when he said that anxiety about is essentially the central driver of what it is that motivates us is human beings when you talk to people about backers ideas. They'll be like this is crazy Z. I don't think about all the time and duckers view is that you don't think about all the time because you're comfortably embedded in your cultural worldview in a way that buffers you from death anxiety by virtue of the fact that you feel like you're a person of value you want a world of meaning. 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 sued ourselves with our anthems and our rituals and our conviction that our religion is the best one one way these defenses are breached is when we come into contact with people different than us and people who have their own beliefs now we must either accept zapped believe suggests that beliefs or we must try to establish that our beliefs are better. If your beliefs about reality served to minimize death anxiety will then when you run into somebody who's different. That's a problem because if I accept let's say the Fulani Lana and Molly who say the earth was created out of a giant drop of milk will that undermines the veracity of the Judeo a Christian Account God created heaven and earth than six days. What Beker said therefore is that when we encounter people who are different we we tend to belittle them. We tend to try to convince or coerce them to dispose of their ideas or we just kill him. The thus proving that our God and our the idea soup better after all when we come back we explore how these ideas play out in politics support for hidden brain and the following message come from rocket mortgage by quicken loans imagine and how it feels to have an award winning team of mortgage experts make the home buying process smoother for you with a history of industry leading online lending technology rockette mortgage is changing the game visit rocket mortgage dot com slash brain equal housing lender licensed in all fifty states and m l last consumeraccess asks DOT ORG number thirty thirty rocket mortgage by quicken loans push-button get mortgage support also comes from nature's way maker of SAMBUC elderberry elderberry dummies nature's way believes nature knows best. This is why they've spent fifty years seeking out wellness solutions to help you be your best self. They travel all the world to places like Austria where elderberry are grown at the perfect altitude and hand picked at their peak nature's way. It's not just our way. It's nature's away find out more today at nature's way DOT com. This is heading brain. I'm Sean Covey Danton. 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 theories also find that people have a second kind of response to the fear of death. Ba- find ways to boost their own self esteem besides saying Mike Culture is superior. My nation is the best. My religion is the most profound the also say I'm the best. I'm better looking than other people. I'm smarter. Moder- I'm richer. We call it self esteem striving and so for example. I think the first study was by our re. Todman and Ben Ari in Israel and the participants were Israeli soldiers and they measured the extent to which the soldier self esteem mm-hmm 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 love and respect and then then they put them on a driving simulator and they measured how fast and how recklessly the soldiers drove and gone the good news is in the control condition. The soldiers drove quite modestly when they were reminded of their mortality. I I the soldiers who self esteem was based on their driving skills they drove faster and more recklessly closely other studies have shown that skin divers reminded of their mortality they say they would stay underwater in more dangerous weather her 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 demonstration's that we shore up our self esteem in response to existential anxieties isn't there something ironic about the studies involving the skin divers averse and the Israeli drivers where reminders of Mortality Causes People to act in ways that increase their risk for mortality. Yes is that not a poignant. We wrote a book chapter wants 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 do that even at the expense of our physical safety so one of the studies that our students. Jamie Goldenberg and Jamie aren't did is is really remarkable where they showed that when people in Florida who self esteem is dependent on their appearance Sir in a world where being tan is considered beautiful while when those folks were reminded of their mortality a few minutes 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. I'm with cancer. I'm wondering one of the insights in in in these studies is that what we really try 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 being the fear of death yes. I think you're quite right but in fairness backer he says at the beginning of the denial of death that death is in fact fact a complex multidimensional construct and people fear it. He claimed we all do but we may fear it for different different reasons and there is good evidence to suggest that for some it's really not the prospect of being dead. The Real L. Horror is to be privy to the moments when we're in the process of that transition itself so in other words. It's the dying not the debt. That actually is a source in the terror yes at least. I think that's the case for me. Although the there are times when I think I don't no no I really want to have it both ways. I don't WanNa be dead or be dying but I do. I am compelled. Oh by the I think it's the epicurious who said well. You know there were people here for eons before we got here and nobody's ever worried worried about that but almost every one of us has a hard time imagining a world that 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 get better in the first place and what is Tara management theory predict by the kind of leaders that we are drawn to Charlotte. Yes term management theory predicts that when existential anxieties are aroused the we are more likely and when I say we I mean all of us are more likely to embrace what the sociologist. Max vaber called the charismatic leader. You're so in the aftermath of September eleventh. We argued based on our studies. The it was was our own existential anxieties that attracted Americans to President Bush in Connecticut as we walk along an if we fast forward to two thousand fifteen two thousand and sixteen and Donald Trump declared his his candidacy for the presidency saying luck. Illegal swarms are coming over the southern border. They're sending people pol that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems with us. Terrorists are GONNA come into the United States and they're gonNA GONNA kill us and he said look. I am the only one who can keep you safe. I'm going to make America great again again. So we did studies in two thousand and fifteen and sixteen by American respondents reminded of death. were more supportive 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 Donald Trump was running against Hillary Clinton. We found a the respondents preferred Clinton to trump in a psychologically glee benign state of mind but if they were reminded of their mortality I their enthusiasm and support for president trump was substantially substantially increased an moreover. We did other studies where we showed that just asking an American to think about a mosque OSC being built in their neighborhood or an immigrant moving into their town. that was sufficient to make unconscious conscious death thoughts come more readily to mind and that in turn increased support for now president trump and this is important because the 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 idea that the Chinese as in every other country for the most part are immortal 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 report for a charismatic leader. This seems to be so much in the current political moment that reflect some of the themes that we've talked about when I think about partisanship for example I think people who want to stick to that tribe because the tribe has long offered protection against death and other threats absolutely we are fundamentally tribal animals for better and worse and what's problematic and potentially catastrophic not to sound too history onic but we're at a point where we have lost track of our overriding commonality ready 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. You've done some work looking at how liberals IOS and conservatives behave toward one out there in an experiment that involves hot sauce. Tell me about that study 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 roots and they were told well okay. You're going to eat some crackers and rate how you liked him and your partner's going to eat some hot sauce. You 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 sir not you gave them the same amount of hot sauce on the other hand. If you were reminded of dying I 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've 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. I'm wondering what it's like for. You personally shelled into a spent so much of your career. Thinking about a cheery topic liked like death. Has It changed the way you thought about Mortality Yourself. I would like to think so but I can't say for sure We'd we'd meaning Jeff and Tom. Nive of joked but quite seriously that terror management theory has spared spared us the the necessity of directly confronting our own existential anxieties because by turning it into an intellectual exercise is a really does distance us a bit and I like to think that coming along and that I'm a little little bit more accurate in my own self reflections one. I asked myself from time to time well. Why are you doing things is is it. 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 Sheldon. Solomon is a psychology a professor at skidmore college along with Jeff Greenberg and Tom Posinski. He's 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. Thank you so much. It was great this week. Show was produced by Raina Cohen when an edited by Tara Boil and Jenny Schmidt our team includes part Shah Laura Chorale and Thomas Lou our unsung hero this week is listener sue Gorski Susan Middle School Science teacher this summer she wanted to revitalize the Rock Garden beds around her house by cleaning Eastone by hand. It was time consuming and solitary task sumit hidden brain her companion in an e mail she wrote on my first day. Hey I started listening to hidden brain episode. One what remains to be seen is if I will run out of podcasts all rocks. I what a enjoy 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 have you have a friend in the midst of a long rock garden project or any other kind of project called for companionship. Please choose your favorite episode of Hidden Brain and and share it with them really appreciate it. 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