Consider This: How Terror Management Theory Helps Us Understand the Pandemic

By Cathryn van Kessel, PhD

By Cathryn van Kessel, PhD

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Cathryn van Kessel

Unlike many researchers, I’m disappointed when my work seems particularly relevant.

I research some of the evils of our social world, and recently I’ve been paying attention to how humans react to existential threats (real or perceived) in the context of education. With our current situation in the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t help but see individual and group behaviours as linked to the social psychology ideas I study.

Situations that constantly reminded us of our bodies’ vulnerability to disease and death (e.g., this pandemic) can take a toll on our personal and collective well-being. Our conscious and unconscious fears of death affect our behaviour, and a pandemic provides particular challenges for us as individuals — as well as for our relations with others — because of our mortality salience (the state of having death on our minds). Terror management theory (TMT) is one way to understand how we are coping with the pandemic, and the Terror Management Health Model (TMHM) can help us understand health-related decision making.

According to TMT, human motivation is multifaceted and layered — and yet death is, in many ways, the worm at the core of existence. Anxieties about death influence human behaviour in many different ways. Some of these ways are logical, such as how we might seek to extend our lives literally (e.g., life-extending practices or procedures) or symbolically (e.g., through leaving a mark on the world). Other effects are perhaps more surprising, such as behaving recklessly or exacerbating intolerance.

Reckless Behaviour

One reaction is to deny that the pandemic is real and can affect us. We might go about our business and pretend everything is fine. Although this may help us cope with our own anxieties and fears, this avoidance can put others at risk (e.g., if we refuse to wear a mask).

When reminded of death, some (but not all) of us will behave more recklessly — to assert that death is for others and doesn’t apply to us. In this way, we might counterproductively put ourselves at risk. In a pandemic, however, we are also often putting others at risk with such behaviour.

Over the past months, those who are potentially harming themselves and others have sometimes been called “covidiots.” Although the label may be tempting (and, in a way, true — because “idiot” comes from Ancient Greek and means a “private person” who isn’t thinking of the public good), it may be more helpful to call these people terrified: too scared to see that their bodies are mortal.

Insulting “covidiots” might make us feel good (because we affirm our own actions and beliefs as the “right” way), but it can increase social tensions and counter the desired end of compliance with safety recommendations. We are more likely to follow guidelines perceived as easy and actionable, where we are part of a community working together. Focusing on covidiots shifts our thinking from seeing those being careful as the majority to thinking that most folks are being non-compliant. It may also exacerbate covid-fatigue and deteriorate overall compliance with precautionary measures. Instead, we should focus our attention on those people exhibiting helpful behaviors.

Exacerbated Intolerance of Differences

We tend to hunker down in our worldviews and be less tolerant of those who have different views from our own when reminded of death. This situation occurs because worldviews and worldview groups give us a sense of permanence (i.e., security in an insecure world). When we encounter a different worldview, we can be put in a state of worldview threat, which has all kinds of effects. One subtle defensive reaction is that our reading comprehension of an opposing view deteriorates. Think of how that affects how we engage with media coverage of, for example, whether or not masks are effective. We also know that reminders of death make us prone to denial, such as believing COVID-19 isn’t a big deal, or perhaps insulting those who are exhibiting different beliefs or behavior from us (e.g., wearing or nor wearing a mask). Or, we might seek to pathologically convert them to ‘our’ way of seeing things (e.g., trying to convince someone about the latest pandemic conspiracy theory), among other effects.

Caring for Each Other

We can also engage in positive behaviours to provide ourselves with a better chance for living longer — such as exercising and eating well — as well as behaviours that bolster our sense of symbolic immortality that encourage good relations with others. Caring interpersonal relationships and healthy group identifications are positive forms of terror management. Secure attachments to loved ones help reduce existential anxiety and depression. Also, coming together in our communities (even virtually) can help ground us during anxious times. Being part of something larger than ourselves gives us a sense of life-continuity (often unconsciously) — our communities can help us understand what came before us and what might endure after us. Furthermore, research has shown that a genuine sense of self-esteem reduces anxiety and anxiety-related defensive behavior, and social bonds and caring for others can give us a stable sense of self-worth, as long as we focus on the needs of others instead of being shallowly performative about our acts of kindness.

We can also monitor our own emotional responses and help others with theirs. We can become more aware of what we are feeling and why (e.g., anxiety and fear from the news). By naming the problem and giving some context, we might not fall prey to more destructive tendencies — and TMT is not the only way to do this. We need to find whatever way works for us, whether that be something like TMT, a wisdom tradition, or whatever else makes us feel connected to our bodies and communities. My hope is that we can take this opportunity to remind ourselves that we fear death because we love life.

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Cathryn van KesselCathryn van Kessel, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta. Her research pivots around conceptualizations of evil itself as well as the emotional component of learning about (and from) evil, including instances of harm arising from existential anxiety.