Magazine article The Spectator

'The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life', by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life', by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski - Review

Article excerpt

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski

Allen Lane, pp.229, £20, ISBN: 9780241217252

This is not a book to be read in solitude. Not for the obvious reason that it's frightening, but because every few lines some fascinating or unexpected fact forces you to exclaim: 'Blimey! Listen to this ...'

The three authors are American psychology professors. As young academics they were much influenced by the work of the anthropologist Ernest Becker, whose final book, The Denial of Death, won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. This work struck them as a most important and potentially fruitful area for further investigation. Over the past 30 years, between them, they seem to have invented a new area of research with the unpromising name of Terror Management Studies. This makes it sound as if they could win a lucrative contract as ideas men for IS or Boko Haram. What they actually do is conduct experiments in order to find out how exposure to thoughts of death affects us.

Their answers are very odd. Subjects who are invited to write a few lines about their own death seem afterwards to undergo a surge of patriotism, to become more reactionary. A number of judges who answered questions about their own deaths before sentencing imposed much harsher penalties. While judges who hadn't answered these questions gave a street prostitute an average $50 fine, the death-questioned ones fined the same woman a whopping $455. It seems that intimations of mortality are allayed by a sense of community and cultural belonging. Hence the American flags which blossomed everywhere after the 11 September attacks.

Unfortunately it isn't just fellow feeling which arises when we are frightened. People who have responded to the death questions not only undergo a surge of appreciation for their own values, they are also far more likely to derogate and dislike other cultures. The authors of this volume are convinced that this explains why humans go to war. They don't mention road rage, which surely has the same source. They believe that fear begets violence. 'Our longing to transcend death inflames violence towards each other,' they assert.

On a brighter note, the best protection against fear of death is self-esteem. Subjects who are told they are clever, or even above average, respond less fearfully to frightening stimuli. This seemed to me to be big news for nervous travellers and phobics: if self-esteem also diminishes anxiety, maybe it's time to chuck out the Valium and start bragging instead. …

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