Thomas Pyszczynski

Thomas Pyszczynski

Thomas Pyszczynski

Study what you find fascinating. Don't follow fads and fashions, trust your own interests.

Understanding the Fear of Death

By Jenny Maloney

"Study what you find fascinating. Don't follow fads and fashions, trust your own interests," said University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) psychology professor Dr. Thomas Pyszczynski. He's a man speaking from experience.

Dr. Pyszczynski is one of the foremost researchers of Terror Management Theory, a topic he never thought he'd find fascinating when he began his studies in psychology, mostly because it didn't exist. He came to it in a rather unorthodox way - by initially finding the ideas crazy and implausible when he read about them in a book by another scientist. 

In 1974, anthropologist Ernest Becker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his non-fiction book The Denial of Death. Becker's central argument, as the title implies, focuses on the idea that man refuses to acknowledge his own mortality. A few years later, Becker's book wound up in the hands of a psychology grad student at the University of Kansas named Thomas Pyszczynski. 

Initially, Pyszczynski didn't buy into Becker's argument. "At first I hated his ideas and found myself obsessed with proving him wrong," said Pyszczynski. But, as it turns out, sometimes the impetus for great research is conflict. "Then it struck me that it was interesting how much these ideas bothered me, and that itself was worth looking into."

Pyszczynski looked into it. Branching off of Becker's ideas and joined by colleagues and friends Jeff Greenberg and Sheldon Solomon, Pyszczynski helped develop Terror Management Theory (TMT) - the psychological theory that states humans create cultural and personal constructs to quell a primitive, subconscious fear of death. 

Humans have evolved with a unique self-awareness. However, according to Pyszczynski in his 2004 article, "What Are We So Afraid Of? A Terror Management Theory Perspective on the Politics of Fear," published in Social Research, "These unique intellectual abilities also created a major problem: they made us aware that, although we are biologically programmed to stay alive and avoid things that would cut our life short, the one absolute certainty in life is that we must die."

"...sudden traumatic events, like the 9/11 attacks, can disrupt the normal systems that provide psychological security"

In the 80s, when Pyszczynski began his research, there was little to no research on the psychology of death. "When I realized the psychology of the day said absolutely nothing about the problem of death, to the point of acting like death didn't even exist, it sealed the deal. It struck me as implausible that something as important as death would not have a big effect on people."

So, for the past thirty years, Pyszczynski has explored how this fear of death influences personal conflicts, nationalism, terrorism, love, family relationships, and many other aspects of the personal and social psyche. In his 2004 article Pyszczynski discusses TMT:

The basic goal of TMT was to answer some very basic questions about the human condition:

  • 1) Why do people need self-esteem and go to such great lengths to get it?;
  • 2) Why do people need to believe that, out of all the different ways of a conceiving reality, their  conception is the one that just happens to bear a one-to-one relation with the truth?; and
  • 3) Why do people have such a hard time getting along with each other, especially those who are different from themselves?

Prior to Pyszczynski and his colleagues delving into TMT, the psychology of death was relegated to conjecture, with no empirical evidence to evaluate human responses to death. "Although a few theorists who did not do empirical research had speculated about the role of death in life, this was considered an issue that was impossible to study scientifically that was best left to philosophers," said Pyszczynski.

Pyszczynski and his colleagues use the experimental method for their research. According to Pyszczynski, this methodology is the "most powerful approach to answering questions yet developed by humankind." They manipulate variables they want to assess and measure their impact against a control group.

Between Pyszczynski's own experiments and his collaboration with psychologists the world over - including universities in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Israel, Iran, Australia, and Japan - there have been hundreds of explorations into TMT's impact. "And working with people in different places gives me access to different types of people, cultures, and life circumstances to stretch the limits of our ideas."

Thomas with students

You can find out more about Thomas Psyszcynski at his website