The Psychology of Mortality

'Death Anxiety Makes Us Hate People Who Are Different'

Interview Conducted by Rafaela von Bredow and Johann Grolle
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                             Oil painting from Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1500.


The fear of death is our constant companion. Psychologist Sheldon Solomon has researched how that anxiety affects our lives -- and found that being reminded of death can bring out our worst.

SPIEGEL: Professor Solomon, you have spent almost your entire professional life focusing on the fear of death. Can you remember the first time you ever experienced this fear?

Solomon: I do. I was eight years old and my mother said one night: "Say goodbye to your grandmother because she's not going to be around much longer." And she died the next day of cancer.

Afterwards, I went upstairs and started leafing through my stamp collection. I had a lot of American stamps and they happened to all have dead presidents on them. So there was George Washington. He was a great guy, but he's still dead. Here's Thomas Jefferson. And then, like a psychological lightning bolt, I was like: "Oh, wow. This does not bode well for me." And I had what I, at least in retrospect, remember as a convulsing realization that that would be my inevitable fate.

SPIEGEL: And this shock still affects you 50 years later?

Solomon: Essentially, yes. In the lovely language of the anthropologist Ernest Becker, there's always a rumbling of panic beneath the surface of our consciousness. Our big forebrain gives us the capacity to think abstractly and symbolically and we are smart enough to realize that, like all living things, our lives are of finite duration. That conspires to give rise to potentially paralyzing existential terror.

SPIEGEL: Despite being so concerned, you seem quite happy...

Solomon: Each of us must live with this terror. Becker's claim is that in order to be able to get up in the morning, we embed ourselves in carefully constructed symbolic belief systems that the anthropologists call "culture." Culture gives us each a sense that life has meaning and that we have value -- by offering us assurances of immortality. Either literally, through the heavens, the soul's afterlives or reincarnation, or by the prospect that some vestige of ourselves will persist over time -- from having kids, amassing great fortunes or producing great works of art or science. Yet no culturally constructed symbolic belief system is ever powerful enough to completely eradicate the anxiety that is engendered by the awareness of death.

SPIEGEL: Do you suffer more than others from this existential terror?

Solomon: I don't believe so. It is usually about this time, five to nine years of age or so, when children, in light of their intellectual and emotional maturation, really do become explicitly self-aware to the point where they recognize that their parents are not the omniscient and omnipotent creatures that they thought. That they are not only fallible but also finite. And it's at that point that we switch our psychological allegiance from relying solely on our parents as the basis for psychological security to the culture at large. Rather than just being a good boy or girl, now I want to be a good American, a good German, a good Christian, a good fill-in-the-blank, depending on the cultural construction upon which our identity is ultimately centered.

SPIEGEL: At what point did you decide to focus your career on the fear of death, a rather dark topic, it must be said?

Solomon: Accidentally, as happens in science quite often. What happened, literally, is that I was in the library looking for some books by Freud and I saw a book with a very interesting green dot. Its author was Ernest Becker. In the very first paragraph of the book, Becker writes: I want to figure out what makes people act the way they do. I was like, yeah, me too!

SPIEGEL: Thinkers have been considering the fear of death for centuries.

Solomon: That's correct. It's an idea that goes back to the Old Testament and further, to the ancients. There is no shortage of strands of thought -- artistic, philosophical and theological -- that point to the uniquely human awareness of death as literally the psychodynamic lynchpin toward which all of our behavior is directed. Only psychologists have avoided the subject.

When I first started working on it, the attitude was: This is nonsense.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Solomon: They said: Even if one grants that these are intriguing ideas, they're unscientific and highly speculative.

SPIEGEL: How were you able to convince them of the contrary?

Solomon: I think this is our small contribution. We said, let's try to figure out if the fear of death influences behavior; let's subject it to empirical scrutiny. Again, we were the beneficiaries of an accident of sorts. We had a graduate student who was in a death and dying course and her class was asked to jot down their thoughts about how they might feel and think as they were physically dying. We heard that and decided: That's exactly what we're going to do. Let's ask some people to answer those questions about death and others to answer questions about other negative stuff, like going to the dentist or a car accident. And then we'll see if the members of the two groups behave differently.

SPIEGEL: Did it work?

Solomon: The very first study that we did was with court judges in Arizona, where we had half of the judges think about their own deaths, and then we asked them to set bond for an alleged prostitute, which was the most common crime in Arizona at the time. The average bond for that crime was $50, but when the judges were reminded of their mortality before setting a bond, they set bonds that were nine times higher, at $455.

SPIEGEL: Wow. That much more?

Solomon: It still astonishes me. What was remarkable is that judges are supposedly trained to administer the law in an evenhanded and rational fashion. But when we explained to them what we were doing, they said there's no way that our stupid questionnaire could have had any effect on their judgment. But the results have been replicated many times, both here and in other countries. So there have been many instances where punitive reactions to moral transgressors are magnified by these death reminders.

SPIEGEL: In your book, you go even further. You even believe that Hitler's success can be explained by Germans' fear of death.

Solomon: We must be very cautious; we should be suspicious of any monolithic explanation of anything. In our book, if we have overstated the case, and we surely have, it's because we believe that psychologists have been oblivious to the possibility that the awareness of death has any effect on what people do. Regarding Hitler: There was the defeat in World War I. There were the incredibly humiliating terms imposed upon the Germans. There was the economic instability engendered by the Depression. The combination of those factors made this a ripe substrate for the emergence of a charismatic leader.

SPIEGEL: Economic distress and aggrieved national feelings are different than the fear of death.

Solomon: You need not know that death is on your mind for these concerns to be lurking perpetually.

Let's take another example that we examined closely: Prior to September 11th, President George W. Bush's approval rating was as low as that of few presidents in the history of presidential polling. Soon after, he had the highest approval rating. We thought: Maybe September 11th was like a giant death reminder. The message was: Terrorists are diabolical, but they're also smart. What did they target?

They targeted the Pentagon. They targeted the Twin Towers and possibly the White House.

They targeted the ultimate symbols of American military, economic and political might. And there's good evidence that people in Montana were just as traumatized as people who lived in Manhattan. So it was both a symbolic as well as a literal death reminder.

SPIEGEL: You're probably going to tell us next that Donald Trump is playing on these same fears.

Solomon: That's true. America has been in a persistent state of economic insecurity. And you have lower-middle class, poorly educated white males who are feeling particularly existentially threatened right now by the changing demographics in the US, where they're about to become a minority. And here's Trump, who says: I'm going to make America great again! I'm going to build a big wall! I'm going to keep all of the Muslims out! We did our first study a couple of months ago and found that after being reminded of death, subjects expressed a greater willingness to vote for Trump.

SPIEGEL: You seem to believe that only the dark elements of our cultural identity are intensified by our fear of death. It makes us nationalist, xenophobic and intolerant. But why?

There are many positive elements to culture as well.

Solomon: Perhaps we're just interested in the capacity for tremendous evil that lurks within all of us (laughs). But death reminders magnify any pre-existing beliefs. Conservatives who are reminded of their mortality like liberal people a lot less. Liberals reminded of their mortality actually like conservative people a little bit more, because they become more tolerant and open minded. We also know that, when people are reminded of their mortality, they become more generous and if you ask them to give to charity, they will do so. But it's really important that we get a handle on the malignant manifestations of death denial. Death anxiety makes us hate people who are different. It makes us uncomfortable with our bodies and bodily functions. It turns us into mindless conspicuous consumers of stuff. It makes us go shopping, makes us eat and drink and smoke more. It undermines our physical as well as our psychological well-being.

SPIEGEL: You also argue that the fear of mortality influences our sexual behavior as well. How so?

Solomon: Ernest Becker said sex and death are twins. When I first read that, I was like: Oh man. I was already miserable, but at least there are a few things left that I enjoyed. And then: Sex and death are twins. But Becker was right: Sex as a physical activity reminds us that we're animals. Animals have sex. They die. We have sex. Therefore, we're animals, and we die. The other problem is that, after we reproduce, we've carried our baton around the relay race of life for one lap, and then it's off to the next generation. That too makes us aware of our own mortality.

SPIEGEL: You write that the moment awareness was achieved was a key moment in humanity's development. When did that happen, do you think?

Solomon: Evolutionary arguments are of necessity highly speculative. But our argument is that, by becoming self-aware, humans learned to anticipate the future, to plan and to ask questions about the world. There came a point where consciousness would have become highly problematic in the absence of the coincident development of mechanisms of denial that enabled us to take full advantage of self-awareness without being overwhelmed by death anxiety. And we go back to the cognitive awakening, something like 50,000 years ago. That is concurrent with the first appearances of grave goods, body ornaments and art. All these things are a way to prevent us from being explicitly aware of the tragic elements of the human condition.

SPIEGEL: Art was just a way to deny death?

Solomon: Yes. "Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable," Bernhard Shaw said. And Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "We fly to Beauty from the terrors of finite existence."

SPIEGEL: Religion offers hope of immortality even more explicitly than does art.

Solomon: Yes, and that is likely the most important function of all religions. I like the idea that religion is an unbelievably creative way for large groups of unrelated people to get along and to foster social cohesion and social coordination. In the beginning was the beat. We were dancing and drumming and singing long before we engaged in discursive language. And yet, the conquistador Juan Ponce de León did not go looking for the Fountain of Social Glue. He went looking for the Fountain of Youth. And the people building the pyramids did not have images of lots of folks yoked arm in arm. No, they're like: I want to live forever.

SPIEGEL: Do our attitudes to death change throughout our lives? What happens, for example, when a doctor diagnoses a deadly disease? Does that intensify one's fear of death?

Solomon: That's a great question, and I don't know. But we want to find the answer and right now we are looking at people who are terminally ill. My wife is a bereavement counselor in the local hospice and she talks about how people react completely differently to terminal diagnoses.

Sometimes they react as we might expect: They get incredibly anxious, fearful and demoralized.

But other times, they literally find life never more meaningful. It's a psychological wake-up call that instigates a process by which they savor every last moment.

SPIEGEL: If we're mortal anyway, why should it matter whether we have 30 years left to live or just one year?

Solomon: Henning Mankell, the Swedish crime writer, wrote captivatingly about exactly that question. He wrote about his reaction to receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis and how, for 10 days, he felt like he was on his way to hell. He describes himself as both paralyzed and terrified, and then he describes in a very poignant, literary and beautiful way how he comes to the realization that you've just proposed, which is, it actually doesn't matter. He was then able to return to life in light of that realization.

SPIEGEL: Has your research helped you come to terms with death?

Solomon: That is a question I am often asked: You've been thinking about death for 40 years.

Has it changed you? Has it alleviated your fear of death? What I say is: sadly, probably not. I actually feel that, to a certain extent, this has been my own death denial mechanism. Then sometimes I think maybe I have made some progress -- that I'm making a couple of baby steps on the road to coming to terms with death.

SPIEGEL: In this process of coming to terms with death, does it help to consider that immortality may even be worse than mortality?

Solomon: You're right! If we were immortal, then life would be meaningless, because nothing would be of consequence. Certainly one way of taking the edge off the prospect of our inevitable demise is to ponder how much more horrendous it would be if we persisted in perpetuity. And yet, if you told me I had X number of days left to live, I would lobby for X plus one.

SPIEGEL: And when the day does come: How do you want to die?

Solomon: I just want to be sitting here with my cheeks stuffed with chocolate, and then just kind of fall asleep.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Solomon, we thank you for this interview.

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