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We're All Gonna Die! How Fear Of Death Drives Our Behavior

Our fear of death affects us more than we think.
Scott MacBride
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Getty Images

Many people tend to push frightening realities out of mind rather than face them head-on. That's especially true when it comes to the terrifying event that no one can escape — death. Psychologist Sheldon Solomon says people may suppress conscious thoughts about their mortality, but unconscious ones still seep through.

In the book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, Solomon, along with psychologists Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, illustrate how death anxiety influences people's behavior in ways they would never suspect. The fear of death is so overwhelming, they say, that people go to great lengths to seek security; they embrace belief systems that give them a sense of meaning — religion, values, community.

Through decades of studies, Solomon and his colleagues have shown that people suppress their fear of mortality by supporting those who are similar to themselves. "If somebody does something that's in accord with your belief system, then being reminded of death should make you like them more so," Solomon says.

People don't just respond by clinging to their in-group. They act in ways that make them feel better about themselves, whether that's demonstrating their physical prowess or buying status goods. In short, Solomon says, "we shore up our self-esteem in response to existential anxieties."

This week on Hidden Brain, we learn how the specter of death hovers in the background, shaping everything from the risks we take to the politicians we elect.

Additional resources

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, 2015

The Birth and Death of Meaning, by Ernest Becker, 1971

The Denial of Death ,by Ernest Becker, 1973

These articles describe how death reminders influence the following behaviors and preferences:

Bond recommendations by municipal court judges

Germans' preference for German vs. non-German items

Reckless driving

Tanning habits

Support for charismatic politicians

Desire to harm someone who doesn't share your beliefs

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 7, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier version of this podcast, guest Sheldon Solomon said that German funeral parlors often have embalmed corpses in their windows. Solomon says that he misspoke, and meant to say that the funeral parlor in which he conducted a study had an urn in the window, not a corpse.

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Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.