Mortality Salience with Ernest Becker Scholars

Jun 18, 2020 | 0 comments

Recently, the Ernest Becker Foundation held an online discussion with scholars of the pioneering American cultural anthropologist’s work.

Ernest Becker
Dr. Ernest Becker, author of The Denial of Death

Becker wrote several books on human motivation and behavior, most notably the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Denial of Death. In it, he argues that “the basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.” (Keen 1973). Becker suggested that a significant function of culture is to provide successful ways to engage in death denial.

Webinar on Covid-19 and Mortality Salience

The Ernest Becker Foundation recently held a webinar to discuss the current pandemic with three researchers who study mortality and human behavior: Sheldon Solomon, Lindsey Harvell-Bowman, and Kenneth Vail. The host/moderator was Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the Ernest Becker Foundation. They provide brilliant insights into what we are feeling and why. (Bios at this blog post)

Watch the Webinar:

This Mortal Life Webinar: Covid-19, Terror Management Theory (TMT), and Existential Concerns

Follow-up Insights

During the webinar, I posed this question in the chat box: “I’m hearing more people are now writing wills and advance medical directives, some are even doing pre-need funeral planning. How would you categorize these people who are taking steps to address their mortality?”

Dr. Lindsey Harvell-Bowman replied: I would argue that writing advanced wills and pre-planning funerals definitely helps us to feel better about death. So, it’s not too surprising to hear that there’s an uptick in these things right now. Interestingly, we also see the opposite. People will avoid it as well, for some of the same reasons. I wonder if there’s a personality moderator in there, in addition to the conscious and unconscious reminders. 

Lyla Rothschild, the Ernest Becker Foundation program director, provided these insights:

As discussed in the webinar, when death is in our conscious attention, people tend to respond with rational, action-oriented, and health-promoting behaviors (exercising, taking vitamins, wearing a mask, following CDC recommendations, etc.), and these things reduce our death anxiety. But when death is more subconscious (easily accessible but not actively thinking about it), people tend to reduce death anxiety by focusing on their existential needs – adhering to the cultural values, increasing their self-esteem, protecting their ego.

Our culture structures reality in a way that makes us feel safe and important, so by taking part of it we feel that we are part of a larger enduring meaning, which in turn reduces death anxiety. As you know, this is the premise of terror management theory. 

Based on this research, I realized that a big problem with advanced care planning (ACP) and one reason why people might be so reluctant to do it is because it brings up conscious thoughts of death. We know this puts people in a rational, solution-focused frame of mind, and yet there is no “solution” to death.

So, although ACP is a very rational response to death, it still requires an acceptance of our death, whereas other rational-responses (vitamins, exercise, etc.) are more about prolonging life and delaying death. There is nothing preventative being offered in this situation, thus procrastination is the next best thing.

The fact that there is an uptick in this sort of planning right now might be simply because people are seeing the negative ramifications of what it looks like to die without having any of those things in place (news stories about people dying along in a hospital room and nothing being ready for the family). Although we would all rather procrastinate than do it, at writing our will and filling out an advance directive gives us some control over our wishes.

It is much harder to ignore this reality right now when we’re seeing death in the news a lot, whereas during “normal” times it’s easier to say “yea, I know I should do this, but I’ll do it next week.” And as Lindsey said, there are probably some personality factors at play as well. 

Long-term solutions to ACP resistance (when we’re not in a pandemic and people go back to their default mode of denial) may lie more in the metaphorical framing and/or self-esteem enhancing potential of ACP. Framing these conversations in a way that boosts self-esteem by taking action, increasing exposure and normalcy, and metaphorical framing – talking about ACP as “legacy planning,” or as leaving a “gift” for your family – are all good techniques for reducing resistance.

By giving people a sense of meaning and purpose and framing ACP in a way that focuses on one’s legacy rather than one’s death, this may help mitigate some of the negative emotions that come with thinking about our own death.

Learn more at the Ernest Becker Foundation website.

A Good Goodbye