The coronavirus pandemic has brought all of us a lot closer to our impermanence. Faced with news photographs of makeshift morgues and dire headlines reporting body counts, we see that all of us, from Tom Hanks to Boris Johnson, are vulnerable—a fact that we push out of our minds in less threatening times.
But our reactions to this heightened sense of mortality can be dizzyingly inconsistent. We’ve seen amazing examples of people stepping up to help others during the pandemic: from a 99-year-old army veteran who raised $33 million for the U.K.’s National Health Service by walking laps in his garden to a royal milliner who started making face shields for hospital workers. On the other hand, we have also seen people stockpiling guns, hoarding canned food and toilet paper, and putting others at risk by defying science.
Findings from psychology help to explain these polar-opposite reactions—and how we can follow our best instincts rather than our worst ones. It all seems to come down to our terror about death. As cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker suggested in 1973, our capacity to reflect on our self poses a problem for human beings: the awareness of the existence of the self signifies that it will one day cease to exist. Within psychology, terror management theory studies how we react when death is made salient to us. In their book The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon and his colleagues describe how terror management theory starts with the assumption that, like other living organisms, human beings have an instinct for self-preservation and survival. But unlike other organisms, our intellectual capacities make us painfully aware that one day we will die.
Across a series of studies, Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and her co-authors have shown that how we choose to spend our precious time depends on how much of it we perceive to have left. Once life’s fragility becomes a personal truth instead of a philosophical concept that happens to “other people,” we become more capable of celebrating whatever days and experiences remain to us instead of focusing on everyday hassles. Acknowledging our impermanence makes us more mindful of life’s small moments and our relationships with others.
In a series of studies entitled “The Scrooge Effect,” researcher Eva Jonas, then at Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany, and her colleagues found that people were more favorable toward charities—for instance, they thought a given charity was more beneficial to society—when they were interviewed in front of a funeral home than they were just a few blocks away. And when American participants were given a chance to donate money to an American charity, those assigned to write about their own death gave about 400 percent more than did those who instead had been asked to write about dental pain.
Interestingly, however, participants in the same study did not give higher donations to a foreign charity, because that would benefit people different from them. As this finding suggests, when death salience is high, as it is now with COVID-19, we can go either way: we might become motivated to make a positive difference, but we can also become more susceptible to the trap of racism and other forms of out-group bias.
For example, in one study Abram Rosenblatt and Jeff Greenberg, both then at the University of Arizona, had actual judges read hypothetical prosecutors’ notes for a woman charged with soliciting for acts of prostitution. Before asking the judges to set her bail, the researchers had them complete a personality questionnaire. Some of the judges received a question asking them to briefly describe their emotions when they thought of their own death. “I guess I would feel very sad for my family, who would miss me,” read a typical response.
Other judges weren’t given any death-oriented questions. They set the bond at $50—the average for that crime. Those who’d been primed to think about their own morality were much more severe: they set an average bond of $455, a staggering nine times more than the judges in the control group. When asked after the study, the judges insisted that answering questions about their death could not possibly have affected their legal decisions. After all, their job was to be rational experts who gauge cases based on facts. But the evidence suggested otherwise.
Why do humans sometimes become close-minded and moralistic when we think about our death rather than focusing on helping others? Because our morals, in-groups and nation will survive us. If we are not careful, anxiety about death can make us cling to our local culture, which allows us to “live on” in some way. So the judges who were encouraged to reflect on their death wanted to give the woman not just a slap on the wrist but the punishment she “deserved” for her moral transgression. If you let death awareness make you anxious instead of reflective, you’ll try to protect your worldview vigorously—through moralizing, nationalism, aggression against other cultures and even support for war.
This is the other side of the death-awareness coin: When our reactions move from reflection to anxiety, our behaviors become more self-protective. We fall prey to self-serving biases, and diversity efforts bother us—an effect described by University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant and Duke University professor Kimberly Wade-Benzoni. This is why nationalist politicians who raise the threat of war win supporters for stopping foreigners: thinking about our possible death can turn us into self-righteous, aggressive, inward-looking xenophobes.
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