Love, death, and terror management theory

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires.

      — Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning

What is love? Perhaps just one of the ways we shield ourselves from fear of death and dying. From Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks:

We have a burning instinct for life and yet we know, ultimately, that we will die. We fear the one thing we cannot escape.

The question ‘why live?’ has preoccupied thinkers from the alpha to the omega of human history, but only relatively recently have we considered the question of ‘how’ – how do we live with this fear, this knowledge of our own demise?

We recognise love as our companion and protector and we now think that it may even shield us from death itself, at least while we’re alive.

‘Terror management theory’ sounds oddly militaristic to the modern ear, but it was never intended to makes us think of politics. It was developed by psychologist Sheldon Solomon and his colleagues to help explain how we live with existential angst.

The theory suggests we have various ways of keeping the fear of death out of our conscious mind, and of understanding what makes our life meaningful. …

[C]lose relationships help us manage the anxiety of mortality, partly through the strength of the bond, but partly through the fact that romantic partnerships give us a symbolic way of transcending death – as families provide a way for our contribution to ‘live on’ after the final curtain.

The post links to studies showing that people reminded of their mortality tended to ascribe greater significance and intensity to their romantic and social attachments. This behavior is consistent with the broader “mortality salience hypothesis,” which states that if an arbitrary belief serves to protect an individual from their fear of death, reminding them of their mortality will cause them to cling to and elaborate this belief. (The underlying edifice, terror management theory, deals with the way in which human minds navigate the double-bind of being simultaneously aware of our desire to preserve our lives and the technical impossibility of doing so.)

The classical example of such a belief would be a religion promising an afterlife, though the hypothesis would work just as well with a belief in which a person was “part of something bigger than themselves”.

It also works just fine with a belief in which the individual, by dint of some combination of industry, sagacity and/or having been born in the right century, has a chance of not dying at all. A prediction: life extension advocates might tend to increase their estimation of the feasibility of significant longevity enhancement after being confronted by reminders of their own finite lifespans. (I know I feel a twinge even writing those words, so I suspect this prediction has some real teeth.)

Another prediction: If love is a way of managing our fear of death, those of us who are dealing with that fear in other ways (even rationally motivated and potentially productive ways, e.g., working as biogerontologists) might not need love as badly– basically, because we have someplace else to run when we’re confronted by the Reaper’s grim visage — and therefore form weaker romantic and/or family bonds.

Distressing, but testable.



  1. The “conservative” bioethics people often trot this out as an argument against the development of anti-aging therapies. I have no idea if there is any validity to this argument, nor do I care. Aging and death sucks and I want to get rid of it. I’m sure that whatever life I create for myself as a post-mortal will give me as much happiness and fulfillment, if not more, than the current life I live now.

    I will deal with the problems of success when I become successful.

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