Looking at death - can be good for youFriday, May 4th, 2012
Death can be good for life, is the conclusion of a twenty-page research document in last month’s Personality and Social Psychology Review.
The academic work finds that thinking about death can actually be a good thing, as it can improve physical health and help people re-prioritise their goals and values. Even non-conscious thinking about death, such as walking by a cemetery, can prompt positive changes and promote helping others, say the psychologists from the University of Missouri.
The report says that past research suggests that thinking about death is destructive and dangerous, fuelling everything from prejudice and greed to violence.
Such studies related to terror management theory, a theory that humans are motivated to quell the potential for terror inherent in the human awareness of vulnerability and mortality by investing in cultural belief systems that imbue life with meaning, and the individuals who subscribe to them with significance.
"This tendency for terror management theory (TMT) research to primarily deal with negative attitudes and harmful behaviours has become so deeply entrenched in our field that some have recently suggested that death awareness is simply a bleak force of social destruction," says Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri, lead author of the new study.
"There has been very little integrative understanding of how subtle, day-to-day, death awareness might be capable of motivating attitudes and behaviours that can minimise harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being."
However, after catastrophic events, such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168, people's heightened fear and awareness of death had both positive and negative effects.
Prof Jamie Arndt said, "Both the news media and researchers tended to focus on the negative reaction to these acts of terrorism, such as violence and discrimination against Muslims, but studies also found that people expressed higher degrees of gratitude, hope, kindness and leadership after 9/11.
"In another example, after the Oklahoma City bombing, divorce rates went down in surrounding counties. After some stimuli escalates one's awareness of death, the positive reaction is to try to reaffirm that the world has positive aspects as well."
The authors pointed to a study by Matthew Gailliot and colleagues in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2008 that tested how just being physically near a cemetery affects how willing people are to help a stranger.
"Researchers hypothesised that if the cultural value of helping was made important to people, then the heightened awareness of death would motivate an increase in helping behaviours," said Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri.
The researchers observed people who were either passing through a cemetery or were one block away, out of sight of the cemetery. Actors at each location talked near the participants about either the value of helping others or a control topic, and then some moments later, another actor dropped her notebook.
The researchers then tested in each condition how many people helped the stranger.
"When the value of helping was made salient, the number of participants who helped the second confederate with her notebook was 40% greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery,” said Mr Vail.
"Other field experiments and tightly controlled laboratory experiments have replicated these and similar findings, showing that the awareness of death can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism."
In their research, entitled When death is good for life, authors Kenneth E. Vail III, Jacob Juhl, Jamie Arndt, Matthew Vess, Clay Routledge and Bastiaan T. Rutjens conclude, “the dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life.”
by Susa Gately