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An interview with Sheldon Solomon

Together with his colleagues Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon developed terror management theory (TMT) – an explanation for many unconscious behavior patterns, such as the desire for more.

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Solomon, what exactly is terror management theory?

SHELDON SOLOMON: Terror management theory is our effort to take the ideas of Ernest Becker, a deceased cultural anthropologist who in the 1970s wrote some very important books, and to reduce them to a few simple assumptions that enabled us to then take them into the laboratory.

Central to Becker’s ideas about what motivates human behavior is the notion that we humans are unique in our awareness that we will someday die. And that gives rise to potentially paralyzing terror. We are also shackled with the collateral realization that our death can occur at any time for reasons that we could never anticipate or control. And finally, just kick us all in the psychological groin; we also don’t like the idea that we’re animals. From a starkly biological point of view, we are literally just breathing pieces of defecating meat.

And what Ernest Becker proposes is that what human beings did - rather ingeniously, but not necessarily consciously - is to construct and maintain what the anthropologists call “culture”. In other words, the terror is managed through humanly constructed beliefs that we live in a world of meaning and we are valuable contributors to that world. We refer to that as “self-esteem”.

Plato said: “That’s why you want to have children, that’s why you want to build pyramids, that’s why we want to write great books and symphonies. That’s why we want to have a lot of money – so that we can be elevated above the status of mere animals who are destined to die.”

And how does this now affect our behavior?

When it comes to immortality, there is never enough. Everything else in the world, any natural desire, can be satiated… Yes, I like pizza, but there comes a point where it’s “well, I had enough pizza” – or even sex, there comes a point where you have enough… “I need a nap.” But, humans are singularly unique in their preoccupation with both overconsumption as well as having more than people that surround them. And, one possibility based on our work is that human beings are motivated to have a lot of stuff and a lot of money – in part because, psychologically speaking, it gives them a sense that they may be able to live forever. And for that reason, enough is never enough.

Is that not a contradiction, to be aware of one’s own mortality and yet accumulate many things?

SHELDON SOLOMON: We spend our lives massing up money for big houses, as many cars, so we can stuff in our driveways and gadgets and, particularly, the newest electronics. But, the fact at the matter is, there comes a point beyond which having more stuff doesn’t make any happier, and it certainly doesn’t keep you alive any longer. What appears to be contradictory is actually easily explicable. And that is that the desire to not die overrides our ability to just rationally entertain the possibility that there’ll come a point in our lives where we will need nothing - because we will be nothing.

Is this a new phenomenon? People have always strived for material things and status…

SHELDON SOLOMON: For most of human history, most people didn’t have all that much. Life was short; you spent most of your waking hours trying to find something to eat. And in the absence of the technology for mass production, most folks did not accumulate all that much. The primary mode of production was that we had to make stuff by hand. If you were a shoemaker, you made an entire shoe - and if you made good shoes then you could feel justly proud for your accomplishments.

And then the industrial revolution comes along. And on the one hand, mass production gives us the capacity to produce high quality goods at prices that many people can afford. On the other hand, the division of labor just radically shifted the nature of work. Now, you don’t make a whole shoe any more, you just slap the heel on it. And that’s what you do for eight hours a day for forty years. You don’t own a shoe; you take no pride in slapping the heel on it. And consequently, there is no longer the capacity for acquiring self-regard by virtue what you literally do. “Hands are shift in emphasis”, some say. From humans as makers to humans as takers - a radical shift from valuing yourself by your accomplishments in terms of what you tangibly produce to valuing yourself by abstract figures in a bankbook.

And then there’s the rampant unhappiness that comes with subscribing to a set of values where you strife for infinite amounts of possessions, because there’s no point of ever being ultimately satisfied. In other words, the dark side of any insatiable desire is just runaway inflation that ultimately spirals out of control.

You describe a change in values. What role does religion play?

In the middle ages the predominant form of Christianity was Catholicism - and Catholicism was really firm about avarice and greed being a sin. The idea here was, well, it was fine to produce things for one’s own consumption or for the benefit of the community. But to acquire obscene amounts of stuff or to take advantage of other people usury or rate a loan at high interest, well, that was just considered a mortal sin.

Then we have Catholicism giving way to the Protestant revolution and what happens is that, now, people are on their own. You have a direct relationship with God - which is both liberating, but it is also traumatizing. Because how can you know what the Almighty has in mind for you? The Protestants had the doctrine of predestination - that you come into the world and your fate has already been decided. You’re either damned and you’re going to hell or you’re blessed and you’re going to heaven. But then, how do I know if I am destined for Hades or heaven?

And the idea here is that I can find out what God has in mind for me by how much I acquire on earth, and that if I work hard and that if I acquire a lot of stuff, that’s an indication that God is shining his contentedness upon me. And so, one argument is that inherence to religious believes that also contribute to look to the Western preoccupation with having unlimited amounts of stuff.

But in westernized societies, religion seems to be losing importance…

Many Western Europeans and Americans in modernity, they no longer really have a firm belief in God. And what we propose is that, well, you don’t believe in God any more, but you have to believe in something that gives you confidence - some confidence, that you can live forever. Money has literally become, in Becker’s language, the new immortality ideology. We no longer worship God per se but we worship the prospect that if we only have enough stuff that we’re gonna be here a lot longer than anybody else.

Are there other ways in which we can process the unconscious fear of our own finitude?

There is automatic processes that are instigated whenever death is on our mind to get it out of mind. What we know is that unconscious death thoughts are manifested in a variety of ways depending upon the person in question and the prevailing culture of values.

Some people might become much more patriotic or nationalistic as one way to manage death anxiety. Other folks become more generous - at least to charities that they believe support their cultural world view. And other folks become much more materialistic and acquisitive – death anxiety amplifies the preexisting tendency to want as much as they can have and more than anybody else.

Can this hypothesis be proven in an experiment?

For people who are generally materialistic, shopping is almost the sole basis upon which their self-esteem is based. They shop because that’s how they drive a sense of life has meaning and they have value. And we know that some of this has to do with death denial, because of experiments where people are reminded of their mortality by e.g. answering questions on a questionnaire right down the emotions you associate with yourself dying. Or sometimes we interview people in front of a funeral parlor, sometimes we flash the word “death” so fast on a computer screen you can’t even see it. But, regardless of how you remind people that they will some day die - when we do that, what we find consistently is that people want more stuff. And they want better stuff. They want things like Rolexes and Lexuses. They want more money - money looks even physically bigger to them under those conditions. And they also get more greedy. So, we think, some of what underlies the desire to shop is an acquisitive motive that is in part a manifestation of death denial.

What else can you notice when subjects are reminded of their mortality?

If our own beliefs about reality serve to reduce death anxiety, then, for example, people that have other beliefs make us uncomfortable. So, if I am a good American and if I am a good Christian and I believe that God created the earth in six days before taking a break... Well, if I run into somebody, like from Borneo in the South Pacific, and they say, “No, everybody knows the earth was created out of a giant coconut…” Then, if they are right, then I am wrong.

We have these belief systems that reduce death anxiety, but, as Ernest Becker said: “There is always gonna be a rumble of panic beneath the surface of consciousness. So, we’re gonna take this death anxiety and we’ve gotta do something with it.”

And one thing that we can do is buy a lot of rubbish. Another thing we can do is to take the death anxiety and to pin it on other people either in or outside of our culture - and to just say “oh, there is the only compassing repositories of evil”.

It used to be the communists. And now, it’s Islamic terrorists. Domestically, we used to hate the hippies – but they are okay now, because jeans cost 200 bugs and the hippies are hedge fond managers. So then, we hate homosexuals, right? But they are ok, so now, we hate old people or we hate people who don’t speak English and so on... So, what will we do with those folks? Well, belittle them or we try to convince them that our way of life is better or - when that doesn’t work - we just kill them.

From a terror management theory perspective, war is in part the inevitable outcome of an inability to tolerate psychologically people who don’t share your beliefs.

Is man fundamentally egocentric or more of a social being?

We are a little bit of both. Ernest Becker just said: “You know, we really want to have it both ways. There are times where we want to stick out as individuals, to be the best and be better than everybody else. But there’s other times where we just want to fit in. I just want to be a good American, a good German, a good Argentinian - I want to be just part of a family or the town that I live in.

And we have shown in our studies that you can notch people one way or the other. A lot of our work has to do with “what happens when you remind people that they will someday die?” And when we do that and if we tell people “Huh! You’re kind of like everybody else!” - then they want to be more unique. They want to stick out. But when we tell people “Oh, wow, you’re singularly unique!” - oh then they want to be more like everybody else.

And this idea that we want to stick out and fit in is very true in terms of consumption: “Yes, I want to have a Porsche, because I want to stick out! And “yeah, I don’t want to ride a camel down the street even though that might be more expensive to buy in New York than a Porsche, because I don’t want to stick out that much!”

But doesn’t our society call for us to be greedy?

There are studies that people are prone to exploit circumstances and other organism to their advantage. So, I think it would be ludicrous to propose that we’re all gonna turn into Gandhi, cloned with Mother Theresa and Jesus. That’s just not gonna happen and may not even be desirable.

Greed is a complicated alloy of motivational forces that, properly harnessed in moderate amounts, is good for us. It would be simple-minded and unfortunate to deny that this drive to succeed, this drive to be the best has been a psychological engine that has driven creativity, innovation and discovery. And personally, I like the idea of progress and I think a touch of greed, therefore, is a good thing. But, I think the conservatives are wrong when they say “Greed is good - and any effort to temper it, either to diminish it or channel it in other directions, is impossible and ill-advised”.

Nietzsche once pointed out in “The Gay Science” (DEUTSCH: “Die fröhliche Wissenschaft”) that consciousness is the most calamitous stupidity by which human beings will someday perish. Nietzsche’s point was that we might just be really a momentary entity, doomed to extinction - because the same affectations that were so beneficial in the short run may prove ultimately tremendously problematic to the point of catastrophic in the end.

But is there a way out of the dilemma of the human condition?

I think, we are fundamentally social creatures. And I know from empirical studies that when we are surrounded by members of a community where the values of cooperation and interdependence on our fellow humans are stressed rather than evaluating the individual in the acquisition of unlimited amounts of stuff that people can be altered in favorable ways. Somehow, people will have to be convinced that some, not all of what they do, is for reasons that they know not of and that is to deny death - and that they’re gonna have to come up with better ways to manage death anxiety. I don’t think that will ever go away. And I am not sure that even should – because I think that being painfully and poignantly aware of the fact that we someday die at our best really ennobles us and brings the best out in us.

And so I don’t think it’s a question of (the) humans ever evolving to the point we’re no longer worried about death. It would be silly! I think part of why we are afraid of death is that we love life - and so, it’s really a question of “Can we do better?” than measuring ourselves by how many rooms in our mansion or Porsches in our driveway.

What needs to change?

There’s a long history in both religion and philosophy that has encouraged the human race to grow up. If individually and collectively we could accept with grace and humility the fact that we’re finite creatures, we need to do that, even if we can’t predict in advance how that would impact on the world around us. And I think, that’s one approach and we need to move in that direction.

The other one is cultural and economic: a cultural world view based on the assumption that unlimited consumption is both possible and desirable - that should be seen for what it is: which is highly problematic, if not downright malignantly self-destructive.

Our cultures evolve and they move in different directions, and we need to both within societies as well as in between them foster cultural beliefs that attenuate consumption a bit. We have very high leveled discussions about what it is that we value - and then there is the question of how do we translate that into economic institutions that balance our self-interest with a propensity to care about others in ways that leave us properly motivated as individuals without materialism run amok.

How do we teach our children all of this?

I think the most important lesson for kids is, as tried as it sounds, to be respectful, humble, compassionate. To develop and pursue their own interests and to learn how to recognize and reject any efforts by powers, be they political, religious or commercial. To coopttheir motivational and cognitive processes.

And what do you say to those who have given up hope?

I would try to comfort people who are depressed, demoralized and disillusioned by coming into contact with the stark reality of the human condition by proposing that their distress and discomfort is very real and should not be stifled by drugs, alcohol, shopping or watching television.

I think, the joy and exuberance that comes with the full appreciation of life requires that we also accept that tragedy is inevitable. Suffering from time to time will also befall us. I guess my own idiosyncratic psychological recipe is to accept like the downside of life while being just humbly grateful for the ultimate privilege, which is just to have been here at all. You know, none of us chose to be born. And a little bit of DNA one way or another and we’d be lima beans or chimps or potted plants. And personally, I’m just profoundly grateful that I got my stint. You get to carry the baton once around the track of life, and I’d rather do that as a human than as a lizard or a potato.

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