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May 2, 2012 Volume 33, No. 30

People’s contemplation of death isn’t all doom and gloom, MU researchers find


Tragedies can lead people to altruism, study finds

Contemplating death doesn’t necessarily lead to morose despondency, fear, aggression or other negative behaviors, as previous research has suggested. Following a review of dozens of studies, MU researchers found that thoughts of mortality can lead to decreased militaristic attitudes, better health decisions, increased altruism and helpfulness, and reduced divorce rates.

The findings were published in the April edition of Personality and Social Psychology Review.

“According to terror management theory, people deal with their awareness of mortality by upholding cultural beliefs and seeking to become part of something larger and more enduring than themselves, such as nations or religions,” said Jamie Arndt, study co-author and professor of psychological sciences. 

“Depending on how that manifests itself, positive outcomes can be the result,” he said.

For example, in one study American test subjects were reminded of death or a control topic and then either imagined a local catastrophe or were reminded of the global threat of climate change. Their militaristic attitudes toward Iran were then evaluated. After being reminded of death, people who were reminded of climate change were more likely to express lower levels of militarism than those who imagined a local disaster.

“The differences seen in this study resulted from the size of the group with which the test subjects identified,” said Ken Vail, lead author and psychology doctoral student. “In both cases, they responded to the awareness of mortality by seeking to protect the relevant groups. When the threat was localized, subjects aggressively defended their local group; but when the threat was globalized, subjects associated themselves with humanity as a whole and became more peaceful and cooperative.”