Does being reminded about death lead to hatred, killing and war? Does it make you want to buy a Lexus? Did George Bush win reelection in 2004 because we’re scared of dying? And why do people the world over dream of flying?
Digital Dying recently spoke with Sheldon Solomon, a Skidmore College psychology professor who has spent his career trying to understand just how humans respond to the knowledge that they will die.
What led to your interest in death?
I have not been enthusiastic about the prospect of my own demise for about as long as I can remember. The crystallizing event was when I was eight or nine years old, my grandmother lived with us and my mom, who was kind of an anxiety-ridden stereotype of a Jewish mother said, say goodbye to your grandmother, you’re never going to see her again. She was fatally ill with cancer. They hauled her away to a hospital and she died later that day. I remember that night I was sitting in my room looking at my stamp collection and started thinking, oh goodness, these presidents are all dead. Then I started thinking about my mom and was like, oh shit, my mom is going to be dead, who is going to make me dinner? Then I was like, oh shit, I’ll be dead.
How does being reminded about death lead to war?
Human beings are uniquely aware of death and disinclined to accept that fact. Because of concerns about mortality we’re especially eager to embrace cultural constructions. The good news is when we share beliefs about reality the world takes on meaning. But the ugly downside is we become intolerant of people who don’t share our views. We dedicate some other group of people as arch enemies that we need to eradicate. In my parent’s time it was capitalists against communists, now I don’t know what enemy we have. It’s either China or Islam, depending on what newspaper you’re reading.
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What does death anxiety have to do with George Bush winning reelection in 2004?
A lot of people thought me and my colleagues were just egghead academics but September 11 was like a surreal movie that corroborated exactly what we’ve been jabbering about for 30 years. We’re fairly confident that Karl Rove and his folks were very much aware of our research. Turns out as the election drew close the number of times they mentioned death or 9/11 per sentence increased. We did studies where we reminded people of their own mortality then asked them how much they supported President Bush and his policies in Iraq. In our control example people were not enthusiastic about either, but when we reminded them about death and asked the same questions they liked Bush and his policies. The kicker was the study we did five weeks before the election. We asked people to think about themselves dying then gave them a piece of paper and said write down who you’re going to vote for. In control conditions they said they’d vote for Kerry in a 4 to 1 margin, but when reminded of their mortality they said they’d vote for President Bush in a 3 to 1 margin. Participants thought there was no way asking them to think about death changed the way they were going to vote, but yet the study shows it did.
How long have world leaders known that they can manipulate their subjects by reminding them of their own demise?
The original idea for this work goes back to a German sociologist named Max Weber, who at the beginning of the twentieth century coined the term charismatic leader. He said there is a particular kind of leader most attractive to people in times of historic unrest. The charismatic leader is someone who believes they were chosen by God to rid the world of evil, and if they don’t believe it their constituents do. Hitler is a historic example. And Bush could be a contemporary one. In late September 2001 there was a cover story in Time magazine in which he said God chose him to lead the country during difficult times.
How do you see this phenomenon playing out in politics right now?
In one study we reminded Americans about death and asked them if they supported attacking countries with nuclear weapons that posed no threat to us. If you ask Americans across the political spectrum should we bomb people who aren’t messing with us, they’re like no of course not. But if you remind them of death they become gung ho, especially conservative Americans. Right now you have an election where one of the big issues besides the economy is when do you attack Iran. Romney will use that relentlessly against Obama. I think one thing they will do is turn the psychological screws and raise existential concerns.
How does being reminded about your own mortality make you want to buy a Lexus?
Some business school people have done studies that remind people of death then show them commercials of Lexus or Rolex. They have shown that people’s desire for high status items increases when you raise existential concerns. There is almost nothing so far that has shown to not be affected when you remind people of mortality. It changes how many cookies you eat, what kind of products you want, what kind of television you watch and whether you think we should bomb Iran. I’d like to think we can jujitsu the same phenomenon into favorable social behavior. Some studies show that when you remind people of death they are more charitable, as long as it is within their own culture. So this isn’t to say that it’s all bad news, but it just seems to me the bad news outweighs the good.
Is the human race doomed?
The 20th century cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wonders about that in his book Escape form Evil. If your beliefs always require a designated repository of evil he doesn’t see a way out. This is a guy who started out much more optimistic, his early work was all about the more we know the more enlightened we’ll be. Then he wrote himself into a corner. What he kept coming back to was how much evil was caused by trying to get rid of evil. The postmodern twist would have to do with the potency of weapons and the fact that it’s easier to buy anthrax on eBay than it is for someone underage to buy beer at a convenient store. The core question is can we have shared beliefs that provide us with a sense that life has meaning and we have value without the need for designated inferiors who we cast as evil.
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What does flying in dreams have to do with death?
That’s some of the coolest stuff ever. This guy named Dan Ogilvie at Rutgers wrote a book called Fantasies of Flight in which he argues that people from day one in all times and places have been concerned about flying. You have angels and superheroes and there is no agreement about why that’s the case. It seems to me and my colleagues that flight is a symbolic way of transcending the confines of time and space. What we found in a few studies where we asked people to imagine themselves flying is that thinking about flying erases the negative responses people typically have in being reminded about death.
This all sounds more like a religion than a scientific theory?
It’s overwhelmingly beautiful to be alive and it’s devastatingly terrible to not and that’s never going to change. The only way we can come to terms with that no matter how we splice and dice the words is through some sort of religion. I think wherever we head will of necessity be religious if for no other point than the fact that for any of us to stand up in the morning we rely on these really core beliefs that can never be unambiguously confirmed. Kierkegaard’s point was the only way you can maintain confidence in them is by faith, and once you use that word you have transplanted rationality into the domain of religiosity.
How has researching death affected your own life?
My initial reaction to reading Becker’s books was utter despair. I left my job at Skidmore, took a leave of absence and wandered around the country doing day labor. I was like, if this guy is right, why am I sitting here? Why don’t I just go out and start drinking heavily. I smoked more pot than Bob Marley and watched Law & Order reruns. Then I drifted back to my job and tried to think about things more positively. I still have a long way to go myself but I was able to come back from my existential despair. Things I had not thought would ever be existentially central to my existence are just great. I have kids and that’s just great, I have pets and that’s just great. I like what I do at Skidmore but also like walking around the block on a nice day. That is one thing the Buddhists said, enlightenment is quite ordinary. The mundane is not only not trivial, it’s profound.