August 06, 2015

A reminder of death. Credit:  Ruben Holthuijsen / Flickr Creative Commons

You probably don’t sit around all day thinking about all the ways you could die. That would be depressing, not to mention unproductive. But maybe thoughts of death run through you head more than you think.

Sheldon Solomon is a professor of psychology at Skidmore College and a co-author of “The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.” He explains that death has a surprisingly dramatic impact on life:

“Our view is that concerns about the fact that we will someday die, which is in some ways is uniquely defining characteristic of our species, affect us whether we are aware of it or not. And for the most part we are quite unaware of it.”

He says that his studies, as well as others worldwide, have discovered that subtle reminders of death tend to increase feelings of support for those similar to us. The downside? You value diversity less.  Solomon explains that a seemingly insignificant reminder of death can prompt you to sit closer to those in your own group, farther from those who aren't, and even harm those who are different.

Death reminders can also have some serious implications in the legal sector. In the ‘80s, Solomon worked on a study that found that when judges are prompted to think about their own imminent deaths, they will dole out harsher punishment, much harsher. Those who experienced the mortality reminder set bail nine times higher than those who did not. He says,

“To be silly, but not, you just want to hope that the judge hasn’t driven by a cemetery on the way to municipal court the next time you get a ticket.”

Where does death have perhaps its most striking impact? Politics.

In the early 2000s, President George W. Bush had some of the lowest approval ratings of any president since American polling began. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, his approval rating spiked.

In a study, Solomon polled Americans five months before the 2004 election, and found that Kerry lead by a four to one margin. But, when participants were reminded about their death, Bush lead by a three to one margin. He was shocked.

Interesting results, but why did they happen? Solomon cites German sociologist Max Weber who said that in times of chaos and upheaval — a prime example being a terrorist attack — we look to confident, “larger-than-life” leaders who pledge the make the world a better place. He points to post 9/11 Bush standing on the World Trade Center, promising to rid the world of evil; that image loomed large in the minds of many Americans.

Solomon doesn’t imply that all of Bush’s supporters were acting out of fear of death, but rather that there were some Americans on the border who were shifted to vote for Bush as a result of thinking about their own mortality — a feeling that was bolstered when Osama Bin Laden released  a video just days before the election.

Part of the issue is that death’s impact isn’t a conscious one, says Solomon.

“If we can recognize that a lot of the most unfortunate and unflattering behaviors on the part of human beings... If we realize that in part those are malignant manifestations of unconscious death anxiety, I think that could lead us in a more productive direction.”

Culture, politics, Kara Miller, death, Sheldon Solomon

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