Mortality Salience: Can awareness of your own death change the way you live?

Late one night in the year 2019, while I was busy in the process of decluttering my room, a random thought popped into my head: “I am going to die one day.” It came to me more as a realization rather than a fact. Death is indeed a reality which everyone is aware of. However, despite being aware of this inevitably disturbing fact, most of us would rather push away this thought than embrace it with open arms and consciously accept it.

While I was sorting through the heaps of notes from my engineering, a degree which I had completed 2 years ago, my fingers involuntarily flicked through the pages as my eyes skimmed through their contents. A sudden wave of nostalgia came over me as memories flashed before my eyes. “So many years have passed”, I thought, as my eyes continued to scan the pages, my vision blurring, as my eyes filled with tears. Coincidentally, I happened to be on the page I was reading at the hospital my grandfather was admitted to, a few years before he passed away. Perhaps this is what triggered the reaction.

During the 2 days that followed my epiphany, I spent my free time browsing articles about death and the afterlife. I also made a mental list of all the things I wished to do in my life and started doing them. At the same time, I tried to stay extremely cautious of not wasting too much time. However, a couple of days later, I was back to my old self.

What is Mortality Salience?

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In psychology, the term mortality salience can be defined as: ‘A psychological state in which a person is consciously thinking about his or her own death.’ It is a hypothesis that originates from the Terror Management Theory (TMT) which aims to explain how fear of death influences a person’s thoughts and actions. An article published in Psychology Today mentions that: ‘According to TMT, people need to insulate themselves from their deep fear of living an insignificant life destined to be erased by death.’

Some people, when faced with mortality salience tend to closely associate themselves with worldviews, such as being part of a particular religious or cultural group, with the hopes of symbolically ‘living on’, in other words, ‘being immortal’ after their inevitable death. The theory suggests that such feelings of association tend to bring about a greater level of self-importance among individuals, in turn minimizing their overall fear of death.

The Terror Management Theory was first built by anthropologist Ernest Becker and later developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski. The 1973 book ‘Denial of Death’ clearly explains that the driving force of a majority of human actions may be an individual’s fear of death and a means of evading it.

At what age can you experience Mortality Salience?

Episodes of Mortality Salience can be experienced at any age and time. However, an individual’s response may vary with age. According to a study published on APA PsycNet, as individuals grew older, they showed a less intense reaction to mortality salience episodes, with the reason probably being that older individuals might have learned to accept the realness of mortality as compared to younger individuals. It is quite hard to imagine that teenagers and kids who are as young as 10 years can also experience mortality salience.

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In an interview, Max Joplin, who is now 29 mentioned that he had experienced an episode of mortality salience at the young age of 9. “I’d be up at 1 or 2 in the morning sobbing and sometimes screaming. I was aware I was a thing and I was going to die and nothing will stop it,” said Max. “To feel the sensation of being on a slanted roof, destined to slide off the edge into nonexistence, no matter how hard you kicked and dug your nails. I’d feel the skull under my skin and tell myself one day this will be hollow, soon to be dust, forgotten like countless before me. I has a major death complex when I was young,” he added with a chuckle.

He further described one of the strangest experiences he had had when he had dozed off in his parents’ truck one day while they were playing a show. “I woke up to the sunset,” he said. “I was in that groggy half-asleep state where I didn’t really know where I was or that I had fallen asleep. I faced the sunset and was hit with this intense awe of the sun and the colours made through the clouds, there was an intuitive sense of something ancient and far beyond myself,” he added.

Max also described how animal-like he felt at that moment. “I didn’t feel like a kid at that moment. I felt like an animal. I mean, I felt my animal-ness. I felt like a thing, I knew this thing would die, and I started to panic and cry.”

Can Mortality Salience change your life?

Studies have shown that mortality salience can change your behavior and thinking. However, the extent to which it can affect an individual depends on various factors such as his/her age, level of maturity, and also the type of religion they practice.

An experimental study conducted by the Faculty of Economic and Business Administration at Lebanese University observed the effects that mortality salience had on Lebanese consumers. 160 university students who belonged to the same neighborhood, practiced the same religion, and belonged to the same culture were chosen and randomly divided into two groups. The first group was asked to think about distressing scenarios about war and terrorist attacks in Lebanon, which brought about feelings of mortality salience (MS). The second group was asked to indulge in an ‘economic discussion’, which was non-mortality salient (NMS) in nature. Both groups were then asked to take up questionnaires based on which they were assessed.

Results from the study showed that those who had been exposed to MS scenarios were more likely to be drawn to consuming material possessions such as a Range Rover or an apartment in Beirut, whereas those who were not exposed to MS scenarios went on to make non-materialistic choices, the reason being that materialistic consumption defined a majority of people’s cultural worldview. Hence, they were more likely to associate themselves with it in order to ease their feeling of death anxiety.

 

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We’re in the middle of a pandemic (and a bit of a panic) and people are dying, so why am I spending even more time thinking about death? Isn’t it a little insensitive to sit at home and draw little pictures of death dancing humans to their graves while real humans are actually dying? I think about death more than the average person at baseline, and in my day (and night) job as a doctor, I’m exposed to more death than most people. I’m convinced that reflecting on the inevitability of death and preparing for the fear at the end of your live and the grief you’ll encounter when those you love die is powerful and life-affirming. Human consciousness is plagued with mortality salience, an existential anxiety because we know we’re going to die. Ignoring death makes the fear worse, and since death will come eventually, this is a losing strategy. Instead, I encourage you to spend some time today thinking about how you’d like to die. This doesn’t make you morbid or suicidal or depressed. It will make you stronger. Ideally we should do this when we’re well and before a pandemic, but now is a good time to start. #grave #graveszine #zine #gravestone #cemetery #graveyard #mementomori #death #sharpie #dansemacabre #danceofdeath #mortality #mortalitysalience #covid_19 #coronavirus #plague

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Looking back at Max Joplin’s experience, he went on to explain how the brief episode affected his future:

“I definitely think part of that experience served as a stimulus to a later awakening. The unrest and desperation provided a predisposition for awakening. The anxiety pushed me into a state of seeking something more, leading to finding that ‘thing’. Like, if I were comfortable with my predicament of this dying thing, I would never have searched for anything else. I brought a lot of heavy conversations with my mom at the time. But I also experienced death young in life, and I’ve never thought before if that was what brought me such thoughts at that age.”

But wait…is Mortality Salience even a real thing?

Well, if it is, then why aren’t psychology students being taught about in school? Rachel Mary Gatley, a psychology student from Birkbeck, University of London said that she had never even heard of the term, let alone studied about it.

When asked whether she or anyone she knew was personally affected by death-related anxiety due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, she replied, “I think people will be more affected by this if they catch it themselves or have someone close to them become sick. I don’t know too much about this, however.”

I spoke to Hallgeir Sjastad, psychologist and assistant professor at the Norwegian School of Economics who in 2019, had conducted a research study on the replication of mortality salience effect by including new data from a high-powered follow-up experiment. Despite his best efforts, however, he was unable to actually find any empirical support to the hypothesis.

“We actually failed to find any effect of mortality salience on subsequent judgments and attitudes,” said the professor. “Also, another major replication project led by Klein (“Many Labs 4”), ran a similar study across many labs, and didn’t find the effect either,” he added. “We wanted to test it in a large-scale study, to see if we could recreate and ‘replicate’ the basic effect. Despite our best efforts, we did not find the effect neither in Norway nor the US.”

He further went on to conclude: “When also taking into account that the other study by Klein was not able to replicate the effect either, I think we no longer can say with certainty that the effect of death reminders is as robust and powerful as it may seem from previous research.”

The reason for this is unknown. However, Professor Hallegeir mentioned that more in-depth research would definitely be required to verify the theory. “In my view, more targeted studies are needed to say something with greater certainty about when, if ever, the effect occurs reliably, most of the time.”

What do you think about Mortality Salience? Have you experienced death-related thoughts or anxiety before? Drop your thoughts in the comments section below!

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