Episode 11: Till Death Do Us Part
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Hello, you guys, welcome back. I am so sorry for the unintentionally extended break from episodes. I really didn't mean for that to happen, but um, a lot has been going on including being a little bit sick as you might be able to tell in my voice. I had been sick for a couple weeks. I'm not sure if it's the same sick that's going around the whole world right now. I haven't actually been tested, but if it is, it's not so bad for me because I'm still kicking. I really appreciate those of you who emailed me to check in and make sure I'm not dead. Still not dead. It's still standing, but those emails make me feel loved, so I appreciate it. I feel like we lived in a different world the last time I uploaded an episode just a couple months ago and I hope everyone out there is doing okay.
I got a little bit of an update for you. Before we get into this. I'm actually going to be making a YouTube version of indirect message now, which is part of what took me so long, but not all of what took me so long. I have found myself missing YouTube. And so now I'm going to make two versions of each episode, a short sort of cliff notes version on YouTube, Andy longer extended cut version here on the podcast. So whether you're the type of person that wants a quick and dirty or slow and meandering, hopefully this covers our bases. I also want to apologize in advance for few little audio issues that came up. Um, with my guest this episode. You know, I may have to like start shipping back and forth on microphone to people because the laptop microphones, it's hit and miss, you know, or maybe I'm just really extra. All right, let's get into today's topic, which is kind of morbid but also not, it's funny, I started thinking about this before the pandemic even started and now I guess it's even more relevant than it was before.
I think that all of us ponder at some point or another, whether or not we're afraid to die. I like to tell myself that death will bring sweet relief and so it's nothing to be afraid of but deep down I'm not sure. I actually believe that in fact it's probably just the depression talking in reality. I do have some anxiety about dying and I think most people do though we push it down to varying degrees. There is actually a ton of research out bear that finds that our fear of death motivates our behavior in a lot of weird ways. It can influence everything you know from romantic relationships all the way up to national politics.
Does anyone remember the button in 2015 a mysterious button appears on Reddit. It has a countdown clock that set to 60 seconds and the only explanation we got was you can only press the button once so users start flooding the subreddit and using their click in. Every time someone presses the button it resets to 60 seconds. But once you take your turn, your account is forever branded with a color coded flare showing how quickly you press the button. And interestingly, these digital tribes start forming around the colors. You know, you've got the Emerald council, the red guard, but in all this hubbub, there's one big question unanswered. What the fuck is the button? What does it mean and what's going to happen when the clock runs out, it's a month in and people start losing their minds. You know, one user rights, there's not much time left.
Guys with strong discipline, the Knights may be able to hold back the clock for a couple of days. I really don't want to know what's going to happen when the button stops. I'd rather be in hell and then it happens two months in or a million clicks later. The clock runs out. The mods give people 10 minutes to leave their final words. I feel nothing. What the hell am I going to watch in the bathroom now? Who is the Precita? We need to know what was the point? Where is our closure? And on that day poor, want to be Groundhog realized there would be no closure, etc. The button never meant anything at all. It was just randomness, chaos. It meant something because we collectively decided that it meant something in all of our fears and anxieties about the clock running out or ultimately moot because it was going to run out and there was nothing that we could do about it. So why am I telling you this story? Well, I think that the button is this perfect, weird little microcosm of terror management theory. My guest today is dr Jeff Greenburg. He's a social psychologist who coined terror management theory. It a lot to share about how fear of death plays out in our lives and in society, all the ways that we psychologically attempt to live forever and how to reign in some of that existential terror. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Terror management theory is a theory about essentially why we behave the way we do, why we aspire to the goals we do, uh, and how we function well in the world with our anxieties relatively minimized. And the theory starts with the very simple idea that we're a species of animal and like other animals, we are biologically predisposed in many ways to keep living. But other animals, we have this, uh, well-developed cerebral cortex that allows us to understand the future and understand that we're creatures within this reality and that eventually we're going to die. And so the theory argues that, uh, that there's an underlying potential for terror due to this realization that other animals are spared. So we have this burden of the knowledge of our mortality that we carry with us, that dawns on us over the course of childhood and that we wouldn't be able to function with sort of a full acceptance that we're just these vulnerable creatures that are going to die for all sorts of reasons. Could happen without, you know, can't be predicted. And that no matter what we do, it's going to happen. That's potentially terrifying. And some of the theory argues is we have to in some way deny that. And the way we do it is by being socialized into cultural worldviews. That's give us a sense that we will continue on beyond our physical death, either literally through soul and afterlife beliefs or symbolically through our identity, through our children, through our accomplishments and the things that we achieve in the world.
So our culture, the way we come to view the world offers us some kind of primitive sense of security. Um, so what happens when our worldview is challenged or threatened in some way?
If we lose faith in our worldview, then that security that the world that he provides is undermined and we might be faced with, they're just these creatures, vulnerable creatures that are going to die. So we have to sustain faith in our worldview at all costs. Let's say. Um, someone from Iran has a very different world view. Me knowing that they don't believe don't value the things that I value is potentially threatening. Cause it's suggesting to me that maybe my worldview is wrong, but my world view is my basis of psychological security. So I can't have that. And so Becker argued that a lot of, a lot of problems that cultures have getting along come down to different worldviews. And different sort of security basis that are, that are at odds with each other.
Do you think that this relates to some of the division that we've seen in the United States in the past decade, but really the past few decades as Americans become more polarized?
Uh, yes. Yeah, it is because I mean everybody's, we're all, we was actually different, right? We're all individuals. So it's always your own individual understanding of what your parents taught you, what your teachers taught you, how you learn about the world and about American history and science and all that. So we also, for example, all Americans, you know, we believe in freedom, but we still, you know, have different worldviews and some of that has more, more come down to the liberal versus a conservative worldview. Probably take us a little bit off topic, but if, if you have, uh, you know, if you live in a liberal worldview, then a lot of your self worth, it's tied up in trying to support social justice, trying to improve the situation for minority groups and low SES people. Uh, the conservative worldview is a little more about loyalty to the group and making sure America is strong.
And what the theory would argue is the more the threat of death is sort of in people's minds, the more we tend to grab on tightly to our own worldview. And so in scary times you're going to see more polarization. Uh, if we go back a ways to kind of maybe the last major, you know, national crisis was nine 11, right at the beginning. Everybody kind of drew together. We're all Americans. This was an attack on America. We tried to strengthen America. Everybody was kind of on board with that. And that lasted for awhile. But sort of the lingering threat of terrorism. Yeah. As obviously continued way beyond that I think has led instead of a unification, more of a polarization between these two, you know, political views of the world. We also make an argument that there are different two different basic types of worldviews.
We call it the rock and the hard place, but there's a rock kind of worldview and a hard place. Worldview. The rock kind of worldview is more like the politically conservative worldview. It's a worldview where there's a very clear sense of good and bad, right and wrong, and uh, it's very clear how to be, how, how you should be a good person, how to sort of feel like you're heroically contributing to a triumph over evil. [inaudible] the main negative emotion is sort of anger that's more of a conservative worldview and it fits with a lot of any kind of fundamentalists worldview. It's like that. So fundamentalist Islamic worldview is also a very rock kind of worldview. It's very clear, good and bad, right and wrong is very clear. It's very clear the path to being significant and contributing to the world. The hard place worldview is one that you see the world more complex complexity.
You're more kind of willing to acknowledge that other worldviews have truth to them. And ours isn't necessarily the absolute truth. You question even your own values at times, but you're not so sure how you know what to do to be a good person that is as simple. And so it's a worldview where the primary negative motion is more is anxiety. And one of the things we found in our research is if you remind people of their mortality, they tend to be drawn toward politicians who sell us more of a rock type of worldview. More of a simple, we're good, there's evil out there. We have to defeat the evil kind of worldview. So
that seems to suggest that some people, uh, maybe people who are drawn toward more leaders and conservative policies are maybe having more anxiety about death. Is that what you're saying?
Yeah, I would say that they, uh, are more focused on,
in a sense, using their political beliefs as a way to, well, their anxieties about death because their identification with America is part of the way they feel in vulnerable in a sense. And I think liberals identify a little bit less, and we've shown us a period where they identify less strongly with their nationality. They're less, they're less sort of invested in nationalism. And so there were ways of coping with the fear of death is a little more individualized, a little bit more trying to accomplish things in their own lives, a little more personalized rather than through national identity.
What role does religious belief play in all of this?
Because they give us the possibility of literally mortality as well as symbolic and mortality. People argue about Judaism, but uh, certainly in Hinduism, in Islam, Christianity, in small tribal spiritual belief systems, there's a belief in afterlife. And if you can believe in an afterlife, and that of course provides the greatest security, their religions, how, you know, religions have their own issues and religions have specific aspects to them that that might be problematic. Some people demonize religion. I think that's a mistake because worldviews get us into trouble. We'll be just get us into trouble because they tell us we're good. And then some other group.
So the danger of a worldview is kind of wrapped up in how dogmatic it is, not necessarily what the beliefs are.
Right, right. That's a beautiful, simple way to, to say yes,
that's interesting. Um, so religion could maybe have some protective effect here, uh, against the fear of death. Um, some of your other research looks at how self esteem can add some protection as well. So how can we build self esteem if you're somebody who feels like you're not a meaningful person in the world and feels like you're not able to offer anything valuable to your community or society, what are some of the ways under this particular theory of the world that people could have better self esteem?
Well, there's two problems that could lead to, to not feeling self esteem. One is not having a meaningful worldview that you believe in. So there are some people who have lost their sense that there's any meaning to the world. So for people like that, you know, you even want them to hopefully find something, some meaningful worldview if it was in a psychotherapy context and the psychotherapists would have to now give them a worldview, but say, here's some options of ways of thinking about the world as meaningful, uh, and try to help them realize
that there, that there isn't meaning in a world leader. If you have to, in a sense, create it. A one can do that. And obviously the existential philosophers talk a lot about that. People at KEMU and sorry, those sorts of folks. Um, but if a person does have a meaningful worldview, then they have to find pathways within that worldview to feel like they're contributing to that meaningful world. Uh, and yes, people some often suffer from self esteem because they don't feel like they're doing it now. They might not be doing that because they're striving for things that don't really suit them. Right? So I would argue that everybody can contribute positively to the world, but you have to find your way, right? So you might have somebody who grew up in a family where, let's say the parents were doctors and they grew up thinking, I have to be a doctor to be a value to the world.
So they might find themselves, you know, beating your head against the wall. I've got to be a doctor. Gotta be done. And yet they're blown it, right? They can't, you can't get past that organic chem, of course, or whatever. Uh, so for that kind of person, what you have to do is broaden their view of how to be meaningful and valuable in the world and say, Hey, look, you don't have to be a doctor. It's one way to be a value, but there's many other ways. And then six, you have to open that, open them up to other alternative ways they can contribute in a positive way to the world that we'll have no last thing Mark in the world. So everybody has that potential in them. But some people are kind of caught in their own heads with, here's how I have to be of value and if that doesn't work.
So maybe one of the ways to deal with our existential terror is to open our minds about what it means to be a valuable contributor to society and help people find their place.
Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that one of the problems in the modern world is in some ways too many choices. Hundreds of years ago, your parents brought you up and said, okay, this is how you be value and of value in the world. Right? And it might be, you know, well I'm a Baker and you're going to inherit my bake shop and you're going to be a Baker and you're going to be valued to your community. Right? Cause back then, you know, you'd be the only Baker in the village, the person who makes the bread, that's a really valuable person. Now we live in larger societies where there's so many options. But I think a lot of, a lot of young people are, you know, are having trouble picking one way. And one of the things that, you know, I've talked to a lot of students and one of the problems students have is they don't want to pick one way.
You know, it's like, it's like well that shuts off all these other way, but you have to, at some point you got to make a decision whether you're going to be, you know, a great YouTube journalist or, or a social psychologist or a lawyer or a construction worker builds buildings. I mean there's lots of ways to potentially, you know, be a value to society and you got to pick one. But here's another problem. Another problem is in a large cultural, like ours, certain roles, many roles have to be filled, right? We need sanitation workers for example. Right? Imagine if all of the sanitation workers said, Nope, not doing that. Right? We'd have huge problems very quickly. So they're value, but the society assigns greater value to certain roles than others.
The way that we are rewarded or valued in society based on income is not necessarily proportional to the amount of value that we can bring to people's lives. That seems like it could create some, um, resentment or uh, low self worth. I just feel like that has come up quite a bit lately with people realizing how important, you know, the people who work at the supermarket are.
Yes, yes, absolutely. And unfortunately are the capitalist culture that we live in. It's sort of a square of a pyramid, right? You got your billionaires at the top and then it kind of, you know, you go down from there and when you're only paying somebody 12 bucks or 15 bucks an hour, uh, in a sense the society's not telling them that what they're doing is of great value. And it also means that they can't provide as well for their kids and their family. So I think it's, it's difficult. And Bakker actually made this point that that in a small tribal culture of like 200 people, everybody's a value. You can see it like every day in a culture of 300 million people. It's hard to just save a sense of value in some extent to whoever you are. But especially if you're doing things that a lot of people are doing, you know, so, so back hundreds of years ago, if you were a Baker, you probably do only Baker in town.
Now, if you're a Baker at Safeway, you know, you should feel good about what you're doing. You're helping to feed people, but you also know how much you're getting paid. And you know that there's also thousands of other bakers. You know, if you're a Baker and you don't have a baking TV show on the food network, then the society isn't, you know, kind of reinforcing and validating your work day to day. Now we can do it as individuals. You can, you can be thankful when you go. You go and get something from, from the grocery store. You can, you can thank the person for their efforts and stuff that gives them a little bit, but you know, it's not backed up by the money. You got to face it. That that money is in some ways what the society is telling you, uh, your, your efforts are worth and that sort of number. So if you're, I mean, my dad was a construction worker. He worked very hard. He came home super, super tired of everyday work outside all the time. You know, most of his sense of value was in providing for us kids and telling us that we're going to have a better life than he did. And that was a big part of his sense of self worth. So a lot of people get their sense of worth from their love relationships, from their romantic relationship, from their kids and from providing.
I wanted to ask you about as well. Um, obviously technology is making it possible for us to live longer lives and futurists like to imagine the world where we can live forever. Um, do you think that this could potentially alleviate some of our fears of death?
Well, I think that there are, scientists are working to extend life and to sort of try to slow up if not reverse the aging process. And I think that that is one way to try and deal with, with death and say, well, if we could just not die. But a lot of people think that that's not going to work because if people don't die, then what are we going to, then we're going to get overpopulated very, very quickly. And of course the first people who won't, who will, who will live indefinitely will be rich people. Poor people will want that technology. And so there's lots of issues with that, but I understand the impulse to want to Excel in life. Absolutely. But the other ways, and you see this in shows like black mirror and stuff is, Oh, we're going to take you and we're going to put you on the internet. Right? They see you're already on the internet, right? Uh, but we're gonna make sure you're there permanently. We're going to take you here. We're gonna take your consciousness and your personality and you know, Lacy green is gonna forever exist in the cyber, in the cyber world. That I would argue is nonsense. But that idea is just another version of soul. Believe your body's part of who you are. My body is part of who I am and you can't separate your frontal lobes from your limbic system and your limbic system is connected to your body.
W soul seems like a strong word. Um, in terms of what the internet can capture, I think of it as sort of an echo of myself that I'm putting online. It's not really me because it's these very small recorded tidbits of me. Right? Um, there's no evolution. There's no learning of the me in the video. You know, and this is actually something that is frequently frustrated me in the YouTube world because my 17 year old self lives on just as presently as my 30 year old self online. I get to be every single age on the internet.
That's right. That's interesting. Yeah.
I feel like some people do see their YouTube videos and the things they share on social media as, as a way to kind of preserve part of themselves. But what you're saying is a little bit different, right?
Absolutely. You know, so a YouTube video that stays after you dies. It's the same thing as a book that I write. It's still in a library after I die. It's not literal. It's not literally mortality, but it is, it's, and it's, it's fine as a basis for symbolic immortality.
And it also, I think this is an interesting lens for understanding people's drive to get, get a lot of, um, recognition online. I think that that's, that can be positive, that making online, you know, if you feel like it is a part of yourself and it's a way to make an impact, can be great. I also see it going some unhealthy ways, uh, similar to religious belief, right? Where you invest too much in maybe some unhealthy beliefs or behaviors that you need to do XYZ to be valuable. You need to get a million views or you know, whatever it might be in order to have your digital, uh, person be significant or valuable,
right? It becomes too rigid, too concrete in any, I've heard that, that the kids now, you know, ten-year-olds are like, how many likes do I have on my Instagram? They get depressed, they get depressed and they don't get enough likes in a given day.
I kind of want to pivot here and talk a little bit about whether we can really overcome this fear that we have, um, and if we should overcome the fear of death to begin with.
Yeah. Yeah. It's a great question. First of all, Becker argued based on some other people and some research that, that basically we can't, we can't fully get rid of it. That, that it, that it's functional, it's adaptive. And then Darwin made this point as well, that it's adaptive to have fear, right? Because fear, fear helps to keep us alive. And so our limbic system is set up to for fight or flight, right. And, uh, and that's functional. And so we have to have that. And you know, the problem with as humans is, uh, that limbic system that kicks in when we're an imminent danger, right? And says, well, I don't want to die. Right? So you run away or fight whatever you need to do to survive. Uh, our frontal lobes who telling us, Oh, what about that lump that's on your neck? What could that be?
So we have this great capacity to kind of feel terror even when there was no imminent threat. And that's where the worldviews of a self worth and symbolic reality that we live within helps to quell all of that. But some people have argued that if we could somehow in a sense of mature beyond our fear of death, if we could come to terms with it, then we would function in a better way. We wouldn't have to rely so much on our own beliefs so that we have to reject somebody else's beliefs and know people also have the awareness of our mortality can help us appreciate the fact that you know, that it's temporary, can lead you to stop and smell the roses. Really appreciate the time that you do have. And there's some assumption that others, there's, there's other cliches like seize the day, right?
Carpet diem, you know, live, live, live this day as if it's your last. And that doesn't make any sense. We're future oriented beings. That's how we survive, right? If you told me this is my life, if I should act like this is the last day on earth, I'm going to get like six cartons of chocolate ice cream. We buy a Jaguar and drive around, it'd be great. Problem is I wake up tomorrow and I have no money and that'd be fatter. And so is the research showing that as, as we get older that that elderly folks actually are a little better about appreciating life day to day. As long as they're healthy, they're a little better about appreciating life day to day and max sort of like optimizing their positive emotion, minimizing their negative emotions and optimizing being around the people they really care about and doing the things that they really value.
You know, one of the things that is touted a lot is the importance of meditation. Um, making a gratitude journal, things like this. Um, I see all over the internet as ways to kind of keep a more positive frame of mind and, and to um, yeah, just have more appreciation for all of the great things that are in our lives and the fact that we even are alive.
I feel like I got a little bit of this from reading, reading or in a spec or in, in kind of building into these ideas that when you, you kind of force yourself a little bit thinking about mortality, then you, there's some anxiety that goes with that. But anxiety is not always a bad thing either. Right? I mean, anxiety kind of keeps us going. Uh, but I think a long way that, a little bit more anxiety. Yeah. I think you can get more, a little more appreciation of life. Gratitude journals are a way to remind yourself certainly to be grateful for the things you have in your life. Um, I also think that when you think about your mortality, it also think about these ideas that we call terror management theory. It helps you recognize that you've got a path and hopefully it's working for you. But other people have a different paths and they're trying to do the same thing you're trying to do just in a different way. And so I think that it can help you not only be compassionate to yourself, but be compassionate to others, even if they're pursuing a path that either stand,
ah, the last quote there, it can help us to be compassionate to others, even if they're pursuing a path that we don't understand working on the sale. Thanks for joining me. You guys have a great weekend and we'll be back in a couple of weeks.