Mortality salience

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Hamlet contemplates the skull of Yorick, Hamlet (1913)

Mortality salience is when an individual becomes aware that his or her death is inevitable.

The term derives from terror management theory, which proposes that mortality salience causes existential anxiety that may be buffered by an individual's cultural worldview and/or sense of self-esteem.

Terror management theory and mortality salience[edit]

Mortality salience engages the conflict that humans have to face both their instinct to avoid death completely, and their intellectual knowledge that avoiding death is ultimately futile. According to terror management theory, when human beings begin to contemplate their mortality and their vulnerability to death, feelings of terror emerge because of the simple fact that humans want to avoid their inevitable death.[1] Mortality salience comes into effect, because humans contribute all of their actions to either avoiding death or distracting themselves from the contemplation of it. Thus, terror management theory asserts that almost all human activity is driven by the fear of death.

Most research done on terror management theory revolves around the mortality salience paradigm. It has been found that religious individuals as well as religious fundamentalists are less vulnerable to mortality salience manipulations, and so religious believers engage in cultural worldview defense to a lesser extent than nonreligious individuals.[2]

Mortality salience and self-esteem[edit]

Mortality salience is highly manipulated by one's self-esteem. Individuals with low self-esteem are more apt to experience the effects of mortality salience, whereas individuals with high self-esteem are better able to cope with the idea that their death is uncontrollable. As an article states, "according to terror management theory, increased self-esteem should enhance the functioning of the cultural anxiety buffer and thereby provide protection against death concerns".[3] Therefore, self-esteem should reduce mortality salience effects. The results of this study conclude that self-esteem helps to buffer an individual's anxiety about passing. Experimenters found that individuals with higher self-esteem do not react to mortality salience, while those with moderate self-esteem do. Therefore, their results imply that self-esteem may in fact reduce the effects of mortality salience.[3]

Potential to cause worldview defense[edit]

Mortality salience has the potential to cause worldview defense, a psychological mechanism that strengthens people's connection with their in-group as a defense mechanism. Studies also show that mortality salience can lead people to feel more inclined to punish minor moral transgressions. One such study divided a group of judges into two groups — one that was asked to reflect upon their own mortality, and one group that was not. The judges were then asked to set a bond for an alleged prostitute. The group that had reflected on mortality set an average bond of $455, while the control group's average bond was $50.[4]

Another study found that mortality salience could cause an increase in support for martyrdom and military intervention. Tom Pyszczynski et al. found that students who had reflected on their mortality showed preference towards people who supported martyrdom, and indicated they might consider martyrdom themselves. They also found that, especially among students who were politically conservative, mortality salience increased support for military intervention, but not among students who were politically liberal.[5]

Gender, emotion and sex related to mortality salience[edit]

In a study conducted by Jamie Goldenberg, a study tested "the hypothesis that mortality salience intensifies gender differences in reactions to sexual and emotional infidelity". In the study, participants were asked to work through packets that had mortality salience manipulation questions in each. In the results, they found that "sex is more relevant to the self-esteem of men than women and being in a committed relationship is relatively more important to women than for men". Therefore, when linking mortality salience to gender, emotion, and sex, men are more likely to suffer from sexual infidelity, and women are more likely to suffer from emotional infidelity. The results of this study showed that there is a logistic regression revealing a significant three-way interaction between gender, sex value, and mortality salience for the item pitting "passionate sex" against "emotional attachment".[6]

Individuals exposed to near-death experiences[edit]

With mortality salience, humans who have encountered near-death experiences develop a greater sense of self and meaning to life. It has been shown that individuals who face these experiences tend to invest more into relationships, political beliefs, religious beliefs, and other beliefs over material things. As a patient with AIDS shared, "Because of my illness I have nothing to hide. It has freed me because now I am completely honest".[citation needed] Developing a cultural worldview provides humans with comfort from the thought of their own inevitable death. This coping mechanism has shown to highly improve the self-worth of humans and highly alleviates existential anxiety.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Whitley, Bernard; Kite, Mary (2010). The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination (2 ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. p. 251-254. 
  2. ^ Wojtkowiak, Joanna; Rutjens, Bastiaan T. (2011). "The postself and terror management theory: Reflecting on after death identity buffers existential threat". The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion (Routledge) 21 (2): 137–144. doi:10.1080/10508619.2011.557008. Retrieved October 12, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Harmon-Jones, Eddie; Simon, Linda; Greenberg, Jeff; Pyszczynski, Tom; Solomon, Sheldon; McGregor, Holly (1997). "Terror management theory and self-esteem: Evidence that increased self-esteem reduces mortailty salience effects" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 72 (1): 24–36. Retrieved October 12, 2015. 
  4. ^ Pyszczynski, Thomas; Jeff Greenberg; Sheldon Solomon (2003). In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. American Psychological Association. ISBN 9781557989543. 
  5. ^ Pyszczynski, Tom; Abdolhossein Abdollahi; Sheldon Solomon; Jeff Greenberg; Florette Cohen; David Weise (2006). "Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might: The Great Satan Versus the Axis of Evil". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin) 32 (4): 525–37. doi:10.1177/0146167205282157. PMID 16513804. Retrieved 2009-04-07. 
  6. ^ Goldenberg, Jamie; Landau, Mark J.; Pyszczynski, Tom; Cox, Cathy R.; Greenberg, Jeff; Solomon, Sheldon; Dunnam, Heather (December 2003). "Gender-Typical Response to Sexual and Emotional Infidelity as a Function of Mortality Salience Induced Self-Esteemed Striving". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Society for Personality and Social Psychology) 29 (12): 1585–1595. doi:10.1177/0146167203256880. Retrieved October 12, 2015.