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The Meaning of Death

The pragmatic prospection view clashes with one highly influential theory about human psychology and motivation. At issue is the role of death in human thought and action.

The presence of death in human life has varied substantially across cultures and historical periods. In Western civilization, death has gradually receded from everyday life. Earlier generations lived much closer to death, according to the acclaimed treatment by the French historian Phillippe Aries (1981). For example, in the very simple villages in medieval Europe, the cemetery was often the focus of social life, because it was one of the few places people could come and go as they pleased in the evenings (there not yet being discos, bars, restaurants, sports arenas, public libraries, shopping malls, and all the other places that modern citizens visit and gather). Moreover, death occurred at all points in life, striking down young, middle-aged, and old, instead of being mainly limited to very old people. There were no retirement pensions or social security payments, so many people worked until they died, thus again making death highly visible, unlike the modern plan by which the person retires from most active duties for several years so that the person can die rather quietly without disrupting events. Indeed, most people died at home, and it was common for relatives, friends, casual acquaintances, even some cases just curious passersby and strangers to come in to the bedroom to see the dying person. Again, this is quite unlike the modern practice in which the dying person is hidden away in a hospital room, far from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and off limits to all but the immediate family (Aries, 1981). Compared with those earlier practices, Aries (1981) characterized the modern Western treatment of death as one in which death is nearly invisible. He also noted that early modern citizens seemed to cultivate reminders of death, such as keeping mementos of dead relatives (perhaps a strand of hair or a bone, molded into a kind of knick-knack on the desk or mantle).

The greater presence of death in life made it plausible, even inevitable, that death was on people's minds. In the 1970s, the view that death is often on people's minds (even modern citizens) received its most ambitious elaboration by an anthropologist, Ernest Becker (1973). Building on some lines of existentialist thought, but also informed by studies of human cultures and symbols, Becker asserted the provocative conclusion that awareness of impending death was the central and fundamental key to understanding human nature and culture.

Becker said that human beings are the only creatures on earth who understand death and who, therefore, know long in advance that they will die. In Becker's view, this awareness of one's mortality could not but create a kind of deep fundamental anxiety and fear. He proposed that much human activity should be understood as motivated by this fear and the desire to keep it at bay. As a particularly powerful example, he suggested that people create culture in order to shield themselves from the fact of their own mortality. Participating in culture—doing a job, shopping, following the news, being politically active, following a sports team, affirming one's group against its rivals and enemies—enables people to distract themselves from the terrible realization that they will each die eventually.

Becker's ideas inspired a group of social psychologists to develop them further and conduct laboratory experiments. The result was "terror management theory" (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999), which came to argue that the fear of death was the most fundamental human motivation, from which all other human strivings and desires can be derived. Although as an anthropologist, Becker's approach was fundamentally cultural, the TMT theorists also connected rather vaguely with evolutionary theory, with its emphasis on survival, and with a frequent assertion that people have a "survival instinct" that takes precedence over most other motives when those clash.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of experiments have been informed by this theory. Typically they assign one group of research subjects (usually college students) to think vividly about what will happen to them when they die, and their subsequent reactions are compared with those of people who thought about something else, like going to the dentist. One common result is that thoughts of death make people seek to affirm their cultural values. For example, if they read an article that is critical of their country, they are especially negative toward the article and its author. These findings seem to fit well with Becker's contention that fear of death underlies identification with one's culture.

These studies do not really test the central assertion of the theory. They show that when people are instructed to think about death, their reactions change. Such studies do not and indeed cannot show that people think about death a great deal or that terror of mortality underlies most human activity.

The pragmatic prospection perspective adopts a radically different view of death, even though it may be quite compatible with all the experiments done under the banner of TMT. Pragmatic prospection says that people mainly think about the future when they can do something about it.

TMT emphasizes one's mortality per se—t he inevitability that one is going to die someday. Awareness of the inevitability of death is touted as the key to understanding human striving. But inevitability, by definition, violates the pragmatic principle. You cannot do anything about the fact that you are going to die someday. Therefore the pragmatic prospection view proposes that people will not give much thought to mortality in itself.

Things are very different when there is a specific possibility of dying in a certain way in a particular future context, especially if that prospect could be avoided. Pragmatic prospection would dictate that people will think a great deal about death when there is a threat of death and an opportunity to avoid it. For example, if you learned that someone will try to kill you next week, you would likely be very interested and want to know every detail. You'd think about how to avoid that person and how to prevent yourself from being killed. Or if your physician says that you have an incipient illness that could become life threatening unless specific steps (e.g., medication, surgery) are taken, your focus would be very much on how to get those steps taken quickly and effectively.

Writing about how economists think about the relationship between present and future, John Maynard Keynes made the famous observation, "In the long run, we are all dead." Death is indeed in everyone's future. But is that a remote, abstract possibility, something that people rarely think about because nothing can be done about it, and dwelling on it is a useless downer? Or is it the central driving force in the human psyche, something that is in the back of everyone's mind most of the time?

Unconscious thoughts are notoriously difficult to track, because people cannot tell you what their unconscious thoughts are. People can only tell you the thoughts they know they have. So the possibility that fear of death lurks constantly in the unconscious is something that cannot be evaluated.

In this respect, TMT resembles many aspects of Freud's psychodynamic theory (1965), because they were impossible to prove right or wrong. Still, if mortality is the foundation of all human striving, it would likely show up in consciousness fairly often. By analogy, sexual motivation—the foundation of Freud's theory about what people want, at least for much of his career, until he posited an aggressive instinct as a second and competing fundamental motive—may be a powerful unconscious force, but it also emerges into consciousness with some frequency. People think about sex rather often. By some counts, many young men have sexual thoughts dozens of times every day (Byers, Purdon, & Clark, 1998; Eysenck, 1971; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994).

There is precious little evidence about how much death is really on people's minds. The thought sampling study (Baumeister et al., 2015) included asking people whether they had been thinking about death when the beeper went off. We hoped not only to get an estimate of how frequent these thoughts were but also to learn about them, by seeing what personality traits, situations, and other factors produced higher versus lower rates of thoughts about death and mortality. We also thought to ascertain whether thoughts of death bring terror (for which TMT is named) and to see what other thoughts and feelings coincided with thoughts of death.

But death does not seem to be on people's minds. Our 500 research subjects checked the "death" box on the list of thoughts barely 1% of the time. Unfortunately this rate was far too low to permit the kind of statistical analyses we hoped to conduct to learn what correlates with thoughts of death. To illustrate, if you want to learn what factors are linked to thinking about death, you want to compare a large set of responses in which people were thinking about death with a large set of responses when they were not. To get the most powerful and most informative statistical information, the ideal would be to have people thinking about death half the time. That would supply plenty of information to ask general questions: Do old folks think about death more than young people? Do men think about death more than women do? Are thoughts of death accompanied by terror or merely worries? Are these thoughts of death rated as out of control or under one's control? Do people think about death when they get up in the morning, while they're at work, or in the evening? Does consuming alcohol make thoughts of death increase or decrease? But there were too few thoughts of death to enable us to conduct these analyses.

The extremely low rate of thoughts about death does, however, cast considerable doubt on Becker's position and on TMT generally. It is hard to argue that fear of death is the central driving force in the human psyche, when death hardly ever seems to cross people's minds. Indeed, even in modern life, from which many instances of death have been removed and hidden, there are still plenty of reminders: Most people watch television and follow the news, and death occurs with some regularity in both entertainment and news. Yet even the frequent availability of these cues does not seem to make death a focus of our thoughts for very long.

In fact, even those few thoughts that did involve death did not necessarily reflect a Beckerian kind of management of existential terror. About half the thoughts involving death referred to the past, not the future. Almost certainly, people were thinking about someone else's death. For example, one of the authors of this book, Baumeister, lost his only child during the project. He thinks of her death almost every day, but hardly ever thinks about his own.

The paucity of thoughts about death does not prove that the pragmatic prospection perspective is correct, of course. But it seems consistent with it. Although there were a few older people in our sample (the oldest was 67), the average age was 29, which in modern life is a long way from death. And even the older ones were probably not facing imminent death or danger. (We doubt they would have volunteered to be in our study otherwise.) So it seems reasonable to assume that death was not a pragmatic concern for our participants. If prospection is pragmatic, they would not be thinking about death. The crucial test would be to run a similar study with people who are coping with life-threatening illnesses or other dangers. If they think about death more often than our sample (which would not be hard, given that our sample almost never thought about death), that would support the pragmatic theory. Indeed, the pragmatic theory would predict that people would think about death in proportion to what they can do about it.

What about people with terminal illness, who expect that they will die fairly soon and cannot prevent it? One might invoke the pragmatic theory to predict that they would not think about death, because the illness cannot be cured and their imminent death is inevitable. In a sense, they are like everyone else, knowing that one will die and unable to do anything about it. But avoiding death is not the only pragmatic concern. If you are going to die in a few months, there is much to be done. You want to make the most of your final weeks. You want to make arrangements for your loved ones after your death, especially if they depend on you.

Baumeister knew the great social psychologist Caryl Rusbult and visited her a few times when her inoperable cancer was reaching the late stages. She knew she was going to die soon. She was of course quite familiar with TMT, as it was influential in her field of study. On one occasion, out of the blue, she turned and said, "By the way, that terror management theory is bullshit. When you face death, it's not about upholding your cultural values. The main thing is to get right with the people you love." For her, imminent death was a pragmatic concern, even though she could not change the fact that she was going to die soon.

Suppose people did think about the fact of mortality, that is, the inevitability of death in general, as opposed to the specific possibility of dying in an imminent preventable way. Would that show exceptions to pragmatic prospection? Even then, possibly not, and certainly far fewer than one might think. There are still things to be done now about what might happen after one is dead. There are two main categories.

One concerns earthly affairs. Yes, you will die someday, but that does not mean you have no reason to care what happens thereafter. Life draws meaning from broader time spans, and many people seek to make life more meaningful by having some lasting effect on the world—one that will continue after their own death. This may involve leaving money and property to one's children and other heirs, so that their lives can be improved. It may be contributing something that will live on in the broader society, such as a work of art or science. It may be participating in some grand project that will carry on into the distant future, such as political change. By participating in a political (or religious) movement, for example, one can contribute to events that may reach success or failure long after one's own lifetime.

Indeed, some people sacrifice their lives for political or religious causes. Prospection beyond death is likely an important factor. A sacrifice is not simply putting an end to one's life but rather accepting a high cost to oneself that is presumably paid in order that other people in the future might benefit.

The issue of religion brings up the second major category of posthumous prospection: the possibility of one's own "life" continuing in some form after death. All over the world, and since prehistory, people have seen others die, wondered about their own deaths, and generated ideas about how they themselves may continue to live on, in some altered sense, after death. Ghost stories are found in most major languages, indicating their wide appeal. Belief in reincarnation is a central doctrine of many Eastern religions.

Western religions, such as Christianity, adopt a more limited form of reincarnation, namely being reborn into heaven. (Christian reincarnation holds that the next life is immune to death, insofar as one lives in heaven or hell forever, unlike Hindu and Buddhist reincarnation, in which one is born again only to die over and over again.) For many centuries, Judaism did not have any doctrine about life after death, but newer forms of Judaism now espouse an afterlife, and the change indicates the continuing appeal of the idea.

Views of the afterlife vary (e.g., Eliade, 1978, 1982). Some depict it as wonderful, such as the Christian doctrine of heaven. Traditional Christianity also has a notion of hell, which is understood as the most miserable form of eternal life that one could imagine. Belief in hell has declined sharply over the last couple centuries, although a minority of Christians today still are likely concerned that they could indeed end up there. Ancient Greek mythology had the Hades underworld, which was a kind of mildly unpleasant afterlife, though not nearly as bad as Christianity's hell. The Hindu and Buddhist notions of reincarnation offer no guarantees, as one can be reborn into any sort of life, good, bad, or indifferent.

The pragmatic contingencies associated with the afterlife depend considerably on what form one believes the afterlife will take. For the Christian who believes firmly in heaven, hell, individual judgment, and free will, the matter is quite urgent. One's actions during this life will dictate where and how one will spend eternity, which will either be a euphoric bliss with lots of singing, family reunions, and proximity to God or else an unending stream of fiendish tortures. The pragmatic Christian who thinks about life after death would want to make careful choices about what to do, giving particular priority to behaving in morally virtuous ways and to participating in church rituals and sacraments.

Quite different guidelines for current actions would loom as useful to, say, the early barbarians of northern Europe. In their mythology, Valhalla was the desirable afterlife, but it was open only to valiant warriors, and by some accounts it was restricted to men who died in battle. Such a view would likely encourage pragmatically minded believers to fight bravely and even to take chances, so they would enjoy the afterlife benefits of the hero's death rather than, say, dying of pneumonia, frostbite, or food poisoning.

Meanwhile, the believer in Eastern-style reincarnation has pragmatic concerns but possibly less pressing ones. In that view, one is reborn into another life, most likely on earth but possibly in another world or universe. The circumstances of one's rebirth depend on how well one acts in the present life. (One accumulates karma, a kind of spiritual record of goodness and badness, and karma propels one through the interim of death into a new life, for better or worse.) In that sense, it behooves one to be a good person so as to earn good karma, thereby benefiting oneself in reincarnation. But that life too will end, and the journey will then continue, possibly through many lives. For the Christian, this life is the one that will decide one's eternal fate, so proper behavior is all-i mportant. For the Hindu or Buddhist, this life is just one of many in a sequence, so although it is good to be good, one will have plenty of time in the future to atone for misdeeds and to accumulate more good karma.

Thus, pragmatic prospection does not necessarily end with death. People have pragmatic concerns that go beyond the end of life. In general, we think people devote relatively little thought to the fact that they are going to die. And even when they do so, they are often engaged in pragmatic prospection.

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