Applications of Terror Management in the Ecological Crisis: A Literature Review on the topics of Human-Nature Relations & Economic Behaviour

Sophia Rose Sanniti, 2017
Vol. 23 No. 24 ISSN 1702-3548 (online)


Over the last thirty years, Terror Management Theory (TMT) has become an established explanatory tool in social psychology, producing an impressive body of research that illuminates the insidious but significant role the awareness of death plays in the daily affairs of human life. Inspired by the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, TMT proposes that existential anxiety is mitigated and managed by cultural worldviews, i.e. humanly constructed meaning systems that provide purpose and permanence and offer a sense of value through the mechanism of self-esteem. An empirical framework generating nearly 500 experiments by researchers working in twenty countries, TMT has revealed the profound influence of death awareness on human behaviour in a great many social and societal contexts. This paper explores and summarizes the major contributions to TMT research as well as the theory’s critiques, and investigates the existential psychodynamic processes inherent within human-nature relations and economic behaviour and their implications for the impending climate crisis. Research conducted to assess the validity of TMT has traditionally been guided by the following premises: reminders of mortality should intensify the need to maintain one’s worldview and self-esteem, while augmenting or threatening aspects of culturally valued beliefs and behaviours should respectively reduce or encourage the existential anxiety cultural worldviews are constructed to mitigate. Behaviours including driving, voting, tanning, and eating, and cultural allegiances including race, religion, gender, nationality, and political affiliation have been influenced by intimations of mortality in TMT experimentation. A vibrant discourse outside TMT literature maintains a strong scepticism towards some of the theory’s major tenets and assumptions. Criticisms discussed in this paper include: inconsistencies with contemporary evolutionary biology; the adaptive capacity of a psychological system that reduces anxiety; the conflicting standards of behaviour that alleviate existential anxiety; and TMT’s anthropocentric, reductionist view of the planet’s creative and integrated life system. An alternative account of TMT research is provided through the findings of Coalitional Psychology, and responses to these criticisms and alternate explanations are offered by TMT experimenters. In light of these criticisms, this paper reviews the empirical findings for two contemporary applications of TMT: human-nature relations (i.e., attitudes towards nature and animals; perceptions of the mind and physical body), and economic behaviour (i.e., money, materialism, branding, charitable behaviour, and progress). These two concepts were chosen due to their foundational role in a peaceful and prosperous existence for humankind on planet earth. TMT’s empirical findings show that the existential foundations of Western culture are founded upon the separation from and superiority over the rest of nature - an outlook that demonstrably impacts the female gender to a greater extent since females have historically been viewed as ruled by their bodies and thus closer to nature and the status of other animals. A supposition is thus put forward that capitalism, an ecologically defiant economic system fundamentally predicated upon the exploitation of both nature and women, is a manifestation of the Western paradigm’s attempt to abolish death. Limitations of TMT experimentation, opportunities for further research, and concluding remarks are provided.