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Death Awareness Is Good for Life

Update Date: Apr 20, 2012 12:47 AM EDT

A new analysis of recent scientific studies shows that thinking about death can offer perspective on life and improve physical health, in contrast to the past studies suggesting that thinking about mortality is destructive and dangerous.

One major implication of their research, Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri, lead author of the study  says, is that we should "turn attention and research efforts toward better understanding of how the motivations triggered by death awareness can actually improve people's lives, rather than how it can cause malady and social strife." Write the authors: "The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life." 

In constructing a new model for how we think about our own mortality, the researchers examained recent studies on the topic. They found numerous examples of experiments that demonstrate benefits of death awareness. The experiments show that the awareness of mortality can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism, Vail summarizes.

For example, a study conducted by Matthew Gailliot and colleagues in 2008 tested how just being physically near a cemetery affects how willing people are to help a stranger. 

The researchers observed people who were either passing through a cemetery or were one block away, out of sight of the cemetery. Actors at each location talked near the participants about either the value of helping others or a control topic, and then some moments later, another actor dropped her notebook. The researchers then tested in each condition how many people helped the stranger.

When the value of helping was made salient, the number of subjects who helped the second actor with her notebook was 40% greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery. 

And a study by Zachary Rothschild of the University of Kansas and co-workers in 2009 showed how an increased awareness of death can motivate American and Iranian religious fundamentalists to display peaceful compassion toward members of other groups when religious texts make such values more important.

A 2010 study by Immo Fritsche of the University of Leipzig and co-authors revealed how increased death awareness can motivate sustainable behaviors when pro-environmental norms are made salient. 

Death awareness can also contibute to improving health. Recent studies have shown that when reminded of death people may use more sunscreen, smoke less, or increase levels of exercise. 

A 2011 study by D.P. Cooper and co-authors found that death reminders increased women's intentions to perform breast self-exams when they were exposed to information that linked the behavior to self-empowerment.

The paper "When Death is Good for Life: Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management" was published in the online edition of Personality and Social Psychology Review this month.

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