Death and failure: A cautionary tale of death anxiety and alternate causality
Many believe that the fear of death is central to the human experience. Theoretically, this fear stems from the human cognitive capacity to project ourselves into the future and contemplate the world without us in it. Awareness—either conscious or unconscious—of our mortality is the central cause of what researchers call death anxiety, which we manage on a day-to-day basis by protecting our cultural worldviews. These views (which range in diversity from a belief in God to the belief that America is the greatest country on earth) act as a crutch to lean on when confronted with terrifying reminders of our mortality. The data on the fear of death and death anxiety are inconsistent. Some data suggests that we are afraid of death, but the majority of data suggest that death anxiety is low. The leading thanatocentric theory, Terror Management Theory (TMT), makes the claim that we do not show death anxiety because we are well practised at suppressing the terrifying thoughts of death; however, this claim is non-falsifiable. The present research does its best to test these claims against the competing theory, the Meaning Maintenance Model (MMM), which stipulates that thoughts of our mortality threaten our meaning framework. We know how the world works and reminders of death make us question that certainty, although death is only one example of a thing that makes us question ourselves. This thesis uses the inconsistent data as a starting point and asks, “Are we actually afraid of death?” in two parts. Part one (which includes Studies 1, 2, and 3) proposes the question philosophically and empirically. Study 1 directly asked participants what they were afraid of. ‘Death’ was listed by approximately 27% of the respondents (‘One’s own death’ was listed by approximately 21%) and death anxiety scores were moderate. ‘Failure’ was the most prevalent fear. It was listed by approximately 61% of the participants. Study 2, more indirectly, analysed written reflections on their mortality. When asked about how their own death made them feel, participants wrote more negative emotional words than positive emotional words. Both positive and negative emotional words were more prevalent when writing about death than writing about neutral controls. Study 3 had participants speak about their own deaths—or a neutral television condition—in front of a camera. Facial recognition software was unable to detect any meaningful emotional differences between those two conditions. These studies looked for (and failed to find) direct signs of death anxiety. Some indirect signs of death anxiety were found (e.g., increased negative emotional word usage), but nothing that suggests a ubiquitous and universal fear of death. Part two, which includes Studies 4 and 5, explores an alternate cause of death anxiety from Study 1: failure. The final two studies explore the mediated relationship between personal failure, the need for closure, and death anxiety. Closure is a construct that links TMT and the MMM. Study 4 asked participants to think about personal life successes or personal life failures and then complete need for closure and death anxiety scales. Need for Closure (NFC) mediated the relationship. Participants that thought about life failures showed an increased need for closure, which subsequently led to an increase in death anxiety. Study 5 tested the relationship between death and failure by adding a mortality salience condition to the previous study. This final study failed to replicate the findings of Study 4. It did, however, find a link between NFC and death anxiety. Taken together, these studies reiterate that the terror from TMT seems to be missing. Failure was the most commonly cited fear, though it is unclear whether death and failure are related. The relationship between NFC and death anxiety is the most promising finding. The implications of these relationships as they relate to existing theories on death and dying are discussed.
Advisor: Halberstadt, Jamin
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Psychology
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Death; Anxiety; Failure; Terror
Research Type: Thesis