Terror Management Theory

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1. Bobby AZARAIN:

" the premise of the theory has its origin in a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction literature called The Denial of Death, written by the Jewish-American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in 1973. Becker’s big idea was that most of human activity and creativity is motivated by our fear of death. This became the cornerstone idea of TMT, which tries to explain human behavior from this perspective.

While all animals are biologically programmed to survive and reproduce, Homo sapiens are capable of abstract thought and reflection. These higher cognitive processes allow us to see that death is not only inevitable, but can occur at any time for reasons that cannot be controlled or predicted in advance. This conscious awareness of our own mortality conflicts with our natural desire to live, and that paradox causes profound terror and anxiety.

It is difficult to live a happy life knowing that you will someday die and that not long after all traces of your existence will be erased from history. According to TMT, as a way of dealing with this perpetual existential terror, humans invented cultural worldviews, which instill our lives with meaning and purpose, and give us a sense of permanence. By adopting cultural worldviews that instill life with direction and value, one can effectively manage the subconscious dread that is always bubbling beneath the surface.

According to TMT, cultural worldviews—which can be religions, national identities, or political ideologies—further mitigate the fear of death by providing paths to immortality. For example, religions offer a path to literal immortality through the concept of an afterlife, a place where the conscious spirit can persist after the physical body is gone. On the other hand, secular cultural worldviews—like political ideologies and national identities—provide paths to “symbolic immortality.” This type of immortality refers to the feeling that one is part of something larger that will outlive the individual, such as a great nation or a movement with a collective identity and pursuit. For each and every one of us, our worldviews provide us with a moment-to-moment defense of a deep-rooted existential fear that would otherwise cause constant terror. Essentially, worldviews are death-anxiety buffers."


2. Psychology Today:

"Nearly everyone fears death. How that fear influences human thinking and behavior is the focus of terror management theory (TMT) research. According to TMT, death anxiety drives people to adopt worldviews that protect their self-esteem, worthiness, and sustainability and allow them to believe that they play an important role in a meaningful world. Some of these views lead to troubling actions.

According to TMT, people need to insulate themselves from their deep fear of living an insignificant life destined to be erased by death. One path to address this fear is to assure themselves that they are part of an important group. This desire to reinforce cultural significance in the face of death often results in displays of prejudice based on the belief that the group with which one identifies is superior to others. In this way, people confirm their self-importance, at least to themselves.

TMT proposes that individuals are motivated to develop close relationships within their own cultural group in order to convince themselves that they will somehow live on—if only symbolically—after their inevitable death. While some of the foundational studies on which TMT is based have failed to replicate, thereby drawing criticism within the field of psychology, the framework continues to resonate for many."



Psychology Today:

"Terror management theory was developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski and expanded in their 2015 book, The Worm at the Core. But the concept is built on the earlier work of anthropologist Ernest Becker, whose 1973 book, The Denial of Death, argued that the majority of human actions are undertaken primarily as a means to ignore or evade death."



On Terror Management Theory

By Stephen Quilley, Jason Hawreliak, Kaitlin Kish:

"In the context of the reMaker society, we also propose a psychological framework for understanding the gap between knowledge and action noted above, and perhaps more importantly, for producing a potentially meaningful way to address it. For starters, it seems likely that part of the solution must come about by better understanding the role of consumer culture in bolstering self-esteem and ontological security (Laing, 1961; Giddens, 1991). One useful point of departure in this regard is Terror Management Theory (TMT), an empirical psychological framework validated by experimental data from over 300 published studies.

According to the TMT model, cultural belief systems function as ‘immortality ideologies’ which act as buffers against existential anxiety (Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski, 1984). Based on the work of Ernest Becker (e.g. 1973; 1975), TMT contends that human beings possess the same biological imperatives to survive as all organisms, but also possess the mental capacity to anticipate [and dwell upon] their inevitable death, and more generally to understand the significance of mortality. The combination of an instinctual will to survive with the knowledge of inescapable finitude is a source of potentially crippling anxiety. In order to cope with existential terror, we create and subscribe to meaning systems which allow us to believe that we are special, or in Becker’s parlance, that we are more significant than “worms and food for worms” (Becker, 1973, p. 26). To achieve this, we engage in ‘hero projects’ – culturally sanctioned practices that increase feelings of belonging, social recognition and self-worth. Furthermore, social systems provide avenues for ‘immortality projects’ through which individuals can live on in perpetuity, literally (perhaps through a religious conception of an afterlife) or symbolically (Lifton, 1983), in the form of a legacy.

TMT has been used to great effect to examine the impact of non-rational drivers in consumption habits (e.g. Arndt et al, 2004) and climate change denial (Vess and Arndt, 2008; Dickinson, 2009). One consequence of modernization is that the in the context of individualized, mobile urban societies, processes of disenchantment, cultural relativism and secularization have undermined cohesive, culturally-sanctioned and shared hero/immortality projects. Even markers as basic as ‘being a good mother’ or ‘living like a good Christian’ no longer function as effective hero/immortality projects. Consumerism has become the lowest common denominator and signifier of last resort. Conspicuous consumption, style and the ownership of things have become highly visible and universally understood markers of prestige and self-worth (Becker, 1973; Kasser and Sheldon, 2000; Arndt et al., 2004). It is the endless cycle of consumption that serves at once to distract us from our mortality whilst providing us with highly visible indicators of success and prestige. Owning a large house, expensive car, or even the latest smartphone (O’Gorman, 2010) are all means for quantifiably demonstrating success within a capitalist system. This may partially account for why people continue to buy into the logic of passive consumption even when they are aware of its negative impacts on workers, local economies, and the environment: the self-esteem boost gained through consumption and ownership may overwhelm any moral quandaries regarding working conditions, sustainability, or the environment (Dickinson, 2009). Thus, one way to counter the logic of passive consumption may be to provide alternative sources of meaning and self-esteem – hero/immortality projects that privilege making and repurposing over buying and throwing away. This is a central aim of the reMaker society: not directly to replace or upend globalization and capitalist hegemony, but to offer a meaningful alternative to the logic of passive consumption. The concept of the reMaker society seeks to link the potential of open source technics, the DIY ethos, and maker-spaces, to an alternative vision of political economy and psychologically informed understanding of green hero/immortality projects."

Caste Study: OSE as TMT

An assessment of the Open Source Ecology project in psycho-spiritual terms

By Stephen Quilley, Jason Hawreliak, Kaitlin Kish:

OSE may be viewed as an early example of what a small-scale reMaker Society might look like:

"One of the most high-profile experiments in open source, participatory design and fabrication is ‘Open Source Ecology’(OSE) – a project that has been the focus of much hype and perhaps excessive expectation. Founded in 2003, OSE hopes to “see a world of prosperity that doesn’t leave anyone behind” (Open Source Ecology: About, 2014). At its core, OSE designs and provides open source blueprints for a ‘Global Village Construction Set’ (GVCS), described as “a set of the 50 most important machines that it takes for modern life to exist” (Open Source Ecology: GCVS, 2014). These include tractors, earth-brick presses, ovens, and circuit makers. OSE calls their pieces of machinery ‘lego’ as they can be interchangeable and designed to fit user needs. One of the primary goals of the GVCS is to provide an alternate means for procuring equipment essential for self-sufficiency at a fraction of the cost of retail machines. For instance, according to OSE’s website, a John Deere Utility Tractor may cost upwards of $44,487; a tractor built according to OSE’s designs, however, may only cost $9,060 (Open Source Ecology, 2014). By implementing a system which emphasizes modular design, individuals do not need to purchase manufacturer specific components or pay exorbitant labour costs; instead, they are potentially able to construct, repair and modify their equipment when necessary.

OSE is an ambitious organization with lofty, world-changing aims. When asked about his goals in an interview with Make magazine, OSE’s founder, Marcin Jakubowski, responded that “we’re trying to reinvent civilization” (Kalish, 2012). We see this rhetoric at play in the organization’s “Vision” statement as well:

This work of distributing raw productive power to people is not only a means to solving wicked problems – but a means for humans themselves to evolve. The creation of a new world depends on expansion of human consciousness and personal evolution – as individuals tap their autonomy, mastery, and purpose – [t]o Build Themselves – and to become responsible for the world around them. One outcome is a world beyond artificial material scarcity – where no longer do material constraints and resource conflicts dictate most of human interactions – personal and political. (Open Source Ecology, 2014)

Although certainly an interesting idea the GVCS remains an aspiration. With the possible exception of the Earth Brick Press, the open hardware is nowhere sufficiently robust and replicable as to compete with commercial products. Our own OSE powercube workshop, run by Tom Griffing in August of 2014 at the DIYode makerspace in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, produced only one partially functioning machine that was not sufficiently robust, reliable and replicable to displace the mainstream equivalent. Nevertheless, the project is important not only in exploring the technical potential of open-architecture manufacturing, but because it intimates an equally paradigmatic change in the psychological relation to the processes of production and consumption. The rationale implicit in this project is that this form of relocalization can link local livelihood and bioregional manufacturing, to ecological and communitarian hero/immortality projects, i.e. that an open-source and community-based approach to the design and fabrication of everyday material culture could become the basis for ontological security (Laing, 1962), the re-enchantment of everyday life (Berman, 1989) and a more active, less-consumption oriented pattern of life. Taken together, the technology, the open architecture collaboration, the model of distributive political economy and alternative vehicles for meaning-making, provide the basis for a truly alternative basis for modernity. Both as i.) a prefigurative model of a future society and ii.) a model of activism and social entrepreneurship in the present, the real potential of OSE is as a nascent hero/immortality project.

In OSE we see the belief that the power of networked communication and the open source ethos are truly emancipatory. At least in principle, they not only provide people with a means towards self-sufficiency, but also evoke a world free of ‘artificial material scarcity’ – a leading cause of hunger, poverty, and war. These are lofty and noble claims, to be sure. However, whether or not OSE’s vision to ‘reinvent civilization’ ever comes to pass, it is nevertheless an example of the sort of movement which characterizes the reMaker Society. The ethos of OSE is not so much anti-capitalist as pro-self-sufficiency. Unlike the immortality ideology of Western capitalism, where prestige and self-esteem are attained through purchases and the logic of passive consumption, OSE provides its participants and adherents the chance to use their skills and knowledge to build something tangible and, potentially, of lasting worth. From the perspective of TMT, OSE provides participants with an alternative vehicle for the accrual of prestige, self-esteem and ontological security.

So what sort of experience does a typical OSE workshop provide? Interested individuals—usually in their twenties or younger—travel to OSE’s farm in rural Missouri, where they participate in a variety of workshops, equipment builds, and brainstorming sessions. The farm is largely off-grid, meaning modern amenities such as clean water, heating, and wireless internet are either non-existent or unreliable (Eakin, 2013). In an interview with New Yorker magazine, one volunteer summed up the reasons for foregoing the conveniences and, frankly, safety of contemporary, first-world life: “I was looking for a way to affect the economic system with technologies—a classic how-to-change-the-world mentality” (Kang, qtd. in Eakin, 2013). Likewise, another OSE participant who built a Compressed Earth Brick Press via OSE’s online documentation, noted the rewards which come from contributing to the project: “It was like, finally, for the first time in my life I knew what I had to do…. It was kind of like giving birth. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh. We built this, we did this and here’s the result”’ (Slade, qtd. in Kalish, 2012). In the same New Yorker interview referenced above, Jakubowski notes what he calls the “Ikea effect, which is that you like something that you build more than something else [i.e. something purchased]…There’s a deep drive in humans to create their own existence” (Eakin, 2013).

These testimonials exemplify the sense of meaning and ontological security potentially offered by making. To return to Becker (1975), ‘What man [sic] really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance. Man wants to know that his life has somehow counted, if not for himself, then at least in a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning’ (p. 4). In this context, projects like OSE offer a potential salve to the Marxian/Weberian/Durkheimian problems of alienation, disenchantment and anomie. Through participating in an OSE workshop or build, volunteers are able to directly see and benefit from the fruits of their labour (e.g. by drinking the water from a freshly dug well); to find meaning in a radically different understanding of ‘the good life’; and to consolidate deep connections with co-producers. Furthermore, since OSE provides its materials freely accessible online, participants know that their contributions will be viewed by others for potentially years to come, further adding to the opportunity for a digital legacy i.e. an ‘immortality project’.

This is not to suggest that OSE is not without very obvious problems. For starters, living off-grid brings a whole host of logistical and even health challenges, and many workshop participants simply lack the technical skills needed for the workshops to function efficiently, meaning timelines are pushed back or people quit prematurely (Eakin, 2013). Furthermore, at this point the near utopian DIY, off-grid rhetoric of OSE cannot fully mesh with the reality that the project is necessarily completely dependent on commercial components and services – not least the Internet, computer technology, rare earth metals sourced from China. Even in a more limited sense, the OSE farm has had to purchase commercial equipment, such as a bulldozer, and pre-fabricated windows (Eakin, 2013). We also want to emphasize that OSE and maker-culture broadly is only one potential alternative model for economic praxis and self-esteem accrual, and that at this point, any economic or environmental impacts are nominal. Nevertheless, if viewed as a move towards something rather than a fully realized vision, OSE and related groups possess the potential to provide the alternative models of localized economics, self-esteem accrual, and meaning making noted above. In short, OSE may be viewed as an early example of what a small-scale reMaker Society might look like." (http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-9-alternative-internets/peer-reviewed-papers/finding-an-alternate-route-towards-open-eco-cyclical-and-distributed-production/)

More Information

URL = http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-9-alternative-internets/peer-reviewed-papers/finding-an-alternate-route-towards-open-eco-cyclical-and-distributed-production/