Terror Management

The pandemic’s toll can easily overwhelm people, but emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman suggests a way to overcome it.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

My newsfeed brings a new death toll daily, reminding me of the lethality of this virus-at-large. No doubt it’s the same for you.

That reminder of mortality operates as what psychology calls a “prime,” joggling our mind into a mental brush with death. In the unconscious mind anything can be possible; as psychologists have told us for years it’s an easy switch from “they are dying” to “I will die.” Poets, too: in the 17th century the British writer John Donne summed it up: “Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

While our mind may make this equation subliminally, this unconscious reminder of our mortality has real consequences. Enter “Terror Management Theory,” the notion that priming our minds with thoughts of our death sets up a cascade of defenses, biases, and actions somewhat askew. 

Decades of studies show that tacit reminders of our own death lead the mind in these directions:

  • Us vs. Them thinking, with highly negative opinions of the “other” group, like "foreigners" or intensified prejudice against minority groups
  • Harsher judgments of law breakers—for example, in setting bail
  • Blaming the victim, such as in an auto crash (or today, virus patients)
  • Heightening of greediness

But here’s the kicker. The terror effects only occur if the reminders of death stay below awareness. If we consciously ponder our mortality, our mind goes down none of these negative mental paths.

So, while the unconscious thought of death shapes what we think and do—and not in the best ways—it also predicts that bringing our mortality into conscious focus has salutary benefits. Today’s frontline health workers—as well as firefighters, ambulance drivers, morticians, hospice workers, and of course, terminal patients—all face the fact of death.

In one experiment, for example, imagining oneself dying in a burning building led people to become less self-centered and greedy and to value their relationships more. What matters most to us in life emerges when we focus on our own death.

Such a confrontation with mortality should make finding a sense of purpose come more readily to mind and be a more powerful motivator of how we act. As the Stanford psychiatrist Irving Yalom put it, even though death destroys us, “the idea of death may save us.”

Viktor Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist who survived four years of German concentration camps, stands as an exemplar of facing one’s own death. Frankl says he survived because he kept a sense of purpose despite the horrors he endured.

Within months of being rescued from near-death in a labor camp, he gave a series of lectures which are only now being published for the first time in English. His book’s title says it all: Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.