Critical Considerations for Terror Management Theory (TMT)
Terror Management Theory is a well-accepted psychology theory that has been extensively used for studying behavior in a variety of fields, including religion, politics, phobias, relationships, among others. In the over 400 available studies, related hypotheses have been explored, including Mortality salience, Self-esteem related to anxiety, and Dead-thought accessibility. Negative criticisms refer mostly to the methodological frameworks of the empirical studies. However, the main shortcomings found in systematic reviews do not question the theory but acknowledge overlooked theoretical issues that have not been addressed convincingly by the published research.
TERROR MANAGEMENT THEORY
The term Terror Management Theory (TMT) was originally proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon in 1986 in a paper titled The Causes and Consequences of a Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory. Its main hypothesis poses humans invest in cultural belief systems (also called worldviews) to provide life with meaning and deal with the inherent awareness and fear of human vulnerability and mortality. Furthermore, by participating in cultural belief systems, individuals find significance (or self-esteem) in their lives.
According to the University of Missouri, TMT has been thoroughly analyzed by over 400 studies related to topics which include "...aggression, stereotyping, needs for structure and meaning, depression and psychopathology, political preferences, creativity, sexuality and attraction, romantic and interpersonal attachment, self-awareness, unconscious cognition, martyrdom, religion, group identification, disgust, human-nature relations, physical health, risk-taking, and legal judgments." Therefore, we can assert TMT is a well-accepted psychology theory and has been validated by its theoretical relation to other fields.
TMT RELATED HYPOTHESES
In 2015, the original authors of the theory published Thirty Years of Terror Management Theory: From Genesis to Revelation, where they explored new areas of study pertaining to TMT. This is a relevant source because it is a recompilation and continuation of the original theory, written by the original authors, providing relevant insights into how the theory has evolved in academic circles for the past 30 years.
The authors emphasize the three most common hypotheses related to TMT and which serve as broad categories of the academic literature that has been conducted around TMT. These have been widely accepted as viable theories and can be summarized as:
Mortality salience (MS): the hypothesis poses that since worldviews allow individuals to protect themselves from anxiety about their mortal existence, then reminders of mortality lead to efforts to bolster the value of self and the groups the individual belongs to or identifies with (also called self-esteem striving).
Self-esteem related to minimal anxiety and defensiveness: this hypothesis considers that high regard for an individual's worldview raises the individual's self-esteem, which, in turn, allows the individual to function with "minimal anxiety and defensiveness."
Dead-thought accessibility (DTA): according to this hypothesis, "threats to terror management resources will increase the accessibility of death-related thought." That is, when an individual feels a threat towards her worldview, thoughts of death are more likely to arise.
CRITICAL ANALYSES OF TMT AND RELATED HYPOTHESES
With over 400 studies conducted using the TMT framework for understanding attitudes and behaviors in a variety of fields, there are few criticisms that can be found regarding the validity of this theory. Its general acceptance is even recognized in critical research papers. The main negative criticisms have to do with the methodological approaches used for testing. One general criticism is summarized by Janet Sayers, who, beyond objecting to the theory itself, questions the methods generally used for conducting its related experiments. Sayers doubts whether thoughts of death or terror of death can truly be measured in individuals in psychology experiments.
Juhl and Routledge go a step beyond and acknowledge that the link between awareness of death and anxiety has not been well studied. In their paper Putting the Terror in Terror Management Theory, they try to find evidence that "the awareness of death causes anxiety and undermines well-being." Their study concludes that an experiment demonstrated that "experimentally heightening the awareness of death increases anxiety and decreases well-being for individuals who lack appropriate psychological buffers."
In terms of TMT-related hypotheses, there are two useful systematic reviews, one about MS and another one about DTA. The first one, by Burke, Martens, and Faucher, reviewed 164 articles with 277 MS experiments. They concluded MS (or reminders of mortality) has moderate effects on variables measuring worldviews and self-esteem. Their research shows "effects increased for experiments using (a) American participants, (b) college students, (c) a longer delay between MS and the [worldview variable], and (d) people-related attitudes as the [worldview variable]."
The second one, authored by Hayes, Schimel, Andt, and Faucher, is an older research paper which found that DTA-related studies have been gaining popularity since 2004. Although this is an older source, it analyzes over 90 empirical studies which test the hypothesis in a variety of fields and experiments. They conclude there are some theoretical issues which have been overlooked by researchers or have not been studied in detail. These are explained thoroughly in the text but I have included a summary of these findings below:
-Awareness of death is not the only variable affecting self-esteem, therefore, it is plausible that anxiety and defensive attitudes are also triggered by factors unrelated to fear of death. Nonetheless, the systematic review finds that awareness of death is a cause (albeit not the only one) for anxiety and defensive attitudes.
-Dead-thought accessibility does not always correlate with defensive attitudes towards worldviews. Additionally, death thoughts can vary between individuals and circumstances. One of the reviewed studies found that having thoughts of dying in controlled and autonomous manners did not increase worldview defense.
-Few studies have analyzed the statistical correlation between DTA, worldview, and self-esteem defensiveness.
After reviewing multiple academic research papers, and given the vast availability of TMT-related studies, it is safe to assume Terror Management Theory is well-accepted among the academic community. There are over 400 studies that use TMT to understand behaviors in a variety of fields, which include religion, politics, health, risk-taking, and many more. The main negative criticisms relate to the experiments' methodological frameworks and theoretical issues that have, so far, been overlooked, including the interaction of other variables (not only awareness of death) in an individual's defensive attitudes and worldviews.