Unlike the character in the movie The Sixth Sense, we actually don’t see dead people. Westerners go to great lengths to excise thoughts about death (real death, that is, not movie death) or being in the presence of death. Sheldon Solomon, on the other hand, routinely thinks about the unthinkable, and how humans behave differently when the unthinkable forces its way into their thoughts.
Solomon, a social psychologist at New York’s Skidmore College, along with two other experimental social psychologists, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, developed the idea of ‘terror management theory’ more than three decades ago to test out scientifically how the mere specter of mortality alters behavior.
Here, in conversation with Social Science Bites’ Nigel Warburton, Solomon specifically addresses the fear of death and how his views were derived from the earlier work of Ernest Becker. Becker, Solomon explains, called the fear of death the “main spring of human activity.” Nonetheless we don’t want to face death directly, Solomon adds, and so, “Just like most of us are unaware of the internal dynamics of the engine that drives our car, we are equally unaware of what it is that impels us to do what we do every day.”
Various experiments bear that out. When primed with the thought of death, judges reminded of death mete out tougher penalties, American voters shifted their prospective votes from a liberal to a conservative, shoppers shift from bargain brands to status symbols.
“And now the real work can commence,” he explains, “which is the nuances: what are the personality variables that influence how vigorously and how defensively one will react? And we know some of those. We know that insecurely-attached and highly-neurotic people respond more defensively when they are reminded of death. But now, we’re in the process, in part we’re studying people who are terminally ill in hospice settings because we know that there has to be tremendous variation - that some people are more comfortable with the prospect of the inevitability of death than others. That’s really what we want to get a handle on right now.”
Solomon earned a bachelor’s degree from Franklin and Marshall College and a doctorate from the University of Kansas. He’s taught at Skidmore, where he’s currently the Ross Professor for Interdisciplinary Studies, since 1980 after joining the faculty at age 26. (He also co-owns a restaurant in the Skidmore’s home of Saratoga Springs.) Along with Greenberg and Pyszczynski he wrote the 2003 book In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, in which terror management theory (which is not in itself about terrorism) is used to analyze the roots of terrorism.