by Trish Mathis
Recently, I was riding to work on a commuter train when I noticed a briefcase on a seat nearby, unattended. I set my book on my lap and glanced around, but the item didn’t seem to belong to anybody. Although it looked innocuous lying there, I knew better. The many safety warnings about unattended baggage I’d heard broadcast over the station platforms and in airport concourses since 9/11 all buzzed in my ears simultaneously. It must be a bomb.
It suddenly felt very hot and I struggled out of my coat, frantically looking for the conductor. I bit my lip and resisted the urge to get up and run into the next train car. My right leg jiggled up and down seemingly of its own accord and I shifted to the edge of my seat, wondering what to do as the breath caught in my throat. I closed my eyes and hoped that everything would be fine, that we would all make it safely through the morning grind.
Just then, a man stepped into my car from the next one, walked down the aisle, and sat in the seat with the briefcase. He clicked it open, removed a folder, and calmly began reading the pages inside. As my surge of adrenaline drained away, I felt very foolish. Of course there was no bomb. That person probably just had to use the train’s restroom, and who takes a briefcase in there?
Where did my fear come from? According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes that “control of death anxiety is the primary function of society and the main motivation in human behavior. Accordingly, awareness of the inevitability of death motivates people to maintain faith in the absolute validity of the beliefs and values that give their lives meaning….” This model explains why we react the way we do to the threat of death and describes how this reaction influences our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Introduced in 1984 by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski, TMT has become a prominent part of their research. They have published widely on the subject, notably including the APA title In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. (Also check out The Psychology of Hate and Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Consequences, and Interventions.)
Although death anxiety can be activated by even the most mundane daily events and moments, TMT is also useful for understanding the fears generated by our current sociopolitical climate. We constantly hear media reports about ISIS, see threatening videos splashed across the Internet, and watch news footage of innocent civilians killed by bombs in Spain or shot by gunmen in Paris. Remember the anthrax attacks perpetrated through the U.S. mail in Washington, DC, several years ago? Do you still experience the occasional twinge of apprehension when opening an unexpected letter or package? We can’t help but worry that we might be the next victim.
And so perhaps we decide not to attend a crowded sporting event one day. We cancel a long-anticipated trip the next. We glare suspiciously at strangers on the streets. Yet simultaneously, we proudly hang American flags from our front porches and we donate to charities. Indeed, as Greenberg et al. noted in the introduction of their most recent book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, “the fear of death is one of the primary driving forces of human action.” At the end of the day, we use our traditions, beliefs, and values to give our lives meaning and thus obscure the anxiety created by our awareness of the possibility of death.
Of course, some of us are more successful at this than others. Fortunately, the theory’s originators offer some strategies for how to deal more productively with the anxiety potential threats produce. These include maintaining close connections with others, gathering information to understand an event, and enhancing self-esteem. Perhaps you’ve tried these ideas in some form or another, and perhaps like me, you have a specific approach you find most helpful.
So the next time I see unattended baggage during my commute, maybe I’ll panic again as the prospect of my own mortality slams into focus. But then I’ll remind myself that my response is a natural, inevitable part of being human. When the immediate danger passes, I can return to the sanctuary offered by routine: the book I’m reading on the train, the susurration of passenger conversation around me, and the normalcy of going to work to do something I consider worthwhile.
Moghaddam, F. M., & Marsella, A. J. (2004). Understanding terrorism: Psychosocial roots, consequences, and intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2003). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The worm at the core: On the role of death in life. New York, NY: Random House.
Sternberg, R. J. (2005). The psychology of hate. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.