In this crazed maelstrom of a society, surely there is one thing that we can all agree on. And it is simply this:
Terror Management Theory is an awesome name for a punk band.
It’s a missed opportunity, however, because this term actually describes a psychological model for how humans deal with the knowledge that we will die someday. Terror management theory (TMT) postulates that “death anxiety drives people to adopt worldviews that protect their self-esteem, worthiness, and sustainability and allow them to believe that they play an important role in a meaningful world.”
Of course, I’m Gen X, so I can’t help but bust out in cynical laughter at the phrase “important role in a meaningful world.”
Ha! there it is again. Sorry, last time, I promise.
In any case, TMT proposes that individuals develop “close relationships within their own cultural group in order to convince themselves that they will somehow live on—if only symbolically—after their inevitable death.”
Now, you might believe that this theory is either deeply profound or nonsensical psychobabble. Or you might interpret TMT in a number of other ways. Is it comforting or delusional? Is it harmless or pathetic? Is it helpful or detrimental?
Regardless of your interpretation, I doubt that you view TMT as a prime motivator for racism. But apparently, it is.
You see, the theory states that people address a fear of death by reassuring themselves that “they are part of an important group.” Furthermore, this desire “often results in displays of prejudice based on the belief that the group with which one identifies is superior to others,” helping people to confirm “their self-importance, at least to themselves.”
At its most grim, TMT holds that when we punish outsider groups (i.e., those who look or behave different than us), we fear our own death less.
In essence, bigotry convinces us that we will never die. Only those loathsome “others” are going to perish. But we will not.
So yeah, this is a cheery view of the human condition.
However, whenever scientists explain how our frail psychology betrays us—turning us into hate-filled slaves to fear and prejudice—I realize that we have the capacity for logic and reason. And we can simply think our way out of bigotry. And that’s magnificent news!
Except that doesn’t work either.
Unfortunately, there is yet another condition called the intelligence trap, in which “greater education and expertise can often amplify our mistakes while rendering us blind to our biases.”
In such situations, being smarter can actually make you believe more ludicrous ideas. This is because highly intelligent people, or individuals with a lot of fancy degrees, often presume that they know everything, or they deny that they can be fooled. Usually, this is a subconscious process, so a brainy person who believes, for example, that his ethnic group is superior to others will see only the “proof” of this assertion and ignore the many contradictions.
For this reason, a racist with a PhD really isn’t that uncommon.
According to this theory, being bright or well-educated may decrease your odds of becoming a bigot, but it’s far from a guarantee. And if you actually are a smart racist, you’re more likely to be a virulent and pompous one as well.
So whether we are fighting off the creeping fear of death, or using our big brains to justify loathsome biases, humans are constantly turning to racism. It’s enough to make you proud to be a Homo sapien.
Still, there is hope—one glittering oasis in the desert of this civilization—that provides a shred of optimism. And what is this uplifting idea that keeps me going?
Well, if a punk group ever does adopt the name Terror Management Theory and goes on tour, I’m snagging front-row tickets.