The Role of Death in Life: Existential Aspects of Human Motivation

Pelin Kesebir and Tom Pyszczynski

in The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation

Published in print February 2012 | ISBN: 9780195399820
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

The Role of Death in Life: Existential Aspects of Human Motivation

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  • Social Psychology
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The capacity for self-reflection, which plays an important role in human self-regulation, also leads people to become aware of the limitations of their existence. Awareness of the conflict between one's desires (e.g., to live) and the limitations of existence (e.g., the inevitability of death) creates the potential for existential anxiety. In this chapter, we review how this anxiety affects human motivation and behavior in a variety of life domains. Terror management theory and research suggest that transcending death and protecting oneself against existential anxiety are potent needs. This protection is provided by an anxiety-buffering system, which imbues people with a sense of meaning and value that function to shield them against these concerns. We review evidence of how the buffering system protects against existential anxiety in four dimensions of existence: the physical, personal, social, and spiritual domains. Because self-awareness is a prerequisite for existential anxiety, escaping self-awareness can also be an effective way to obviate the problem of existence. After elaborating on how existential anxiety can motivate escape from self-awareness, we conclude the chapter with a discussion of remaining issues and directions for future research and theory development.

Keywords: terror management theory; experimental existential psychology; death anxiety; existential anxiety; motivation

Article.  17276 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Social Psychology ; Developmental Psychology

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