17 Glossary of Key Becker & TMT Terms

Andy Scott

Anxiety buffering hypothesis: Self-esteem helps people handle anxiety. Most importantly for terror management theory, it buffers us against the anxiety that arises from the knowledge that we will one day die.

Causa sui project: The purpose that a person assigns to him or herself that allows them to make sense of their existence and mortality. Serves as a vessel for our personalized immortalization by creating something of ourselves that we believe will last beyond our life on earth. Put simply, it is our immortality project. For educators, teaching can be an immortality project in both helpful and harmful ways.

Cultural worldview: A set of beliefs that we use to explain the nature of our reality. These beliefs endow our lives with meaning, give guidelines by which to live a valuable life, and promise some form death transcendence (i.e., immortality). People can hold several interconnected worldviews simultaneously (e.g., one can be a Christian, a Canadian, and an educator all at once).

Character (armor/defense): Refers to the identity we develop throughout our lives that is made up of one or more interconnected cultural worldviews to which we prescribe. Our character armor is constructed by piecing together various protective beliefs which serve to shield us from the anxiety that comes with knowing that we are destined to die.

  • Example: A person’s character shield could consist of various overlapping identity components. One could identify as Canadian, Buddhist, Asian, an Academic, and many other things that would combine to provide personal meaning and a feeling of immortality.

Death thought accessibility (DTA) hypothesis: Individuals keep thoughts of death out of awareness by adopting and adhering to self-esteem and immortality yielding cultural worldviews. When these worldviews are threatened, they are unable to prevent death related thoughts from creeping back toward consciousness.

Dehumanization: The process of viewing a person or group of people as less than fully human. People often justify harmful actions directed toward others by dehumanizing them because it diminishes the guilt that comes with hurting a fellow human.

  • Example: Jews were often referred to by the Nazi Party as cockroaches and rats which helped to make killing more palatable to those carrying it out. Likewise, Nazi soldiers were often portrayed as half-man and half-demon by the Allied powers.

Ernest Becker: Was a cultural anthropologist whose Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death (1973), inspired the development of terror management theory within the field of social psychology. He is known for his claim that much of human culture and behavior is directed toward denying the fact of our mortal fate.

Evil (Becker’s definition of): According to Becker, humans perceive that which opposes our vitality or continued existence as evil. Evil can take the form of either direct threats to our physical, bodily self or as threats to our symbolic self and the cultural structures that support it. When we are threatened by an opposing individual or worldview, we tend to lash out against the threat which we perceive as evil, thus becoming a source of evil ourselves. Hence, Becker claimed that evil often paradoxically results from human attempts to eliminate evil.

Existential: Relating to existence; concerned with human existence as it is experienced by humans. Existential is an adjective used to denote a conceptual link to experiential existence. Existential concerns are ones involving existence such as mortality, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.

Existential anxiety or Dread or Terror: Most commonly these terms refer to the anxiety and fear that comes with knowing that we will eventually die. Existential anxiety can also refer more broadly to the unease that accompanies thinking about any potentially unpleasant aspect of our existence including meaninglessness, mortality, isolation, and freedom and responsibility.

Existentialism: A branch of philosophy that proposes that we humans must create our own meaning in life. Or, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous words, “existence precedes essence.” That is, we are born into a meaningless world in which we must fashion our own meaning in the face of the absurdity of the world and our own inescapable death. Because, the world is devoid of any inherent meaning, existentialism holds that we are entirely free and, therefore, personally responsible for making our own meaning in life.

Existential psychology: A field of psychology that concerns itself with the study of how humans deal with their experienced existence which entails a confrontation with meaninglessness, mortality, isolation, and freedom and responsibility.

Existential threat: An existential threat is a threat to existence (e.g., mortality salience) and sometimes refers further to threats to the psychological constructs that help us to make sense of our existence as simultaneously physical and symbolic beings.

Fetishization (or Partialization): For Becker, fetishization is a psychological strategy that involves narrowing our conception of oneself and the world to limited dimensions that afford well-defined, and attainable ways to act in a valued manner. Because fetishes provide a stable and manageable way to attain personal significance (i.e., self-esteem), we invest excessively in these constructs and their symbolic representations and, thus, come to rely on them unduly to make sense of our world.

  • Example: Someone who has fetishized their country and its symbols might come to believe that the country’s flag is a sacred object that is directly representative of the nation and, thus, that anyone who burns it should be thrown in jail or stripped of their citizenship.

Fetishization of evil: Occurs when we locate evil (i.e., threats to life) to a single, recognizable and manageable source that can then be blamed for our suffering. The fetishization of evil occurs when we take all that threatens our physical and symbolic selves, and confine it to a person, group of people, or an ideology and label that entity or group as evil; we think that if only it wasn’t for them, life would be good and then seek to dispose of that entity. It is the process of channeling the overwhelming dread of death into smaller terrors and then seek to remove them from our lives. We convince ourselves that if we could only eliminate that one thing, we would then be freed of all suffering and evil.

  • Example: The Nazi Party’s final solution which sought to eliminate all Jews because they were seen to be the ultimate source of Germany’s problems.

  • Scapegoating: Similarly to fetishizing evil, the process of scapegoating entails blaming a person/group. Fetishizing evil takes this idea further. Not only is a single person or group blamed for a perceived (and simplified) problem, but also there is a call for the elimination of that person or group. For example, blaming immigrants for a struggling economy is scapegoating, while calling for deporting (or worse) immigrants is fetishizing evil.

For more information see our page on the fetishization of evil.

Heroism: Is the struggle to win out against evil by developing and utilizing our talents and personality in such a way that we meaningfully contribute to a culture and its ability to transcend death and suffering. We aim to heroically triumph over both our own personal death and the death of our culture through which we hope to live on. (See also causa sui project.)

Individuality-within-finitude: Ernest Becker used this phrase to refer to the human condition: we are a self-aware consciousness that seems to stand out from nature, yet we are clearly confined to a natural body that is doomed to die and decay. In other words, we are both a symbolic self and an animal body at the same time. Because of this unpleasant paradox, we spend a lot of time trying to symbolically separate ourselves from our fragile bodies.

Meaninglessness/Absurdity/Thrownness: These are terms used, somewhat interchangeably, in existentialism to describe the fact that humans are born into a world devoid of meaning and forced to face this reality and our inevitable deaths. We are meaning seeking animals who have been thrown into the therefore absurd position of living in a world that is indifferent and often hostile towards us.

Mortality salience: The state of having death on your mind. When we say mortality is salient, it means that one has been reminded of death.

Mortality salience (MS) hypothesis: posits that mortality salience (i.e., a death reminder) increases people’s motivation to defend and uphold their existentially protective cultural worldviews as well as seek anxiety-buffering self-esteem through culturally endorsed pursuits. Put simply, if cultural worldviews and the self-esteem extracted from them function to reduce the terror of mortality, then death reminders should increase the necessity for and defense of these psychologically protective structures. Hundreds of terror management studies have shown that exposing individuals to death reminders causes higher levels of worldview defense and self-esteem striving.

Proximal/Distal defenses: Proximal defenses are behaviors aimed at avoiding dying and pushing death thoughts out of conscious awareness (e.g., thought-suppression) while distal defenses serve to build or protect one’s existentially buffering self-esteem and thecultural worldviews through which it is attained (e.g., worldview defense).

Self-esteem: The feeling that one is a valuable member of a meaningful world. When we live up to the values and standards of our culture, we gain self-esteem that helps protect us from our anxiety about death and serves as a measure of our eligibility for literal or symbolic immortality.

Symbolic immortality: The sense or belief that we are connected to something that has lasting permanence (e.g., a country, a family, a school, a project like a book, etc.,) and that a piece of ourselves will live on through that culture or object via our contributions to it.

Literal immortality: The sense or belief that when our physical bodies die, we, or our immortal souls, really live on either here on earth or somewhere else (e.g., we are reincarnated in another form; we go to heaven).

Survival: The actual avoidance of death. Throughout human history, we have sought to delay or altogether dodge death using magical and scientific methods. This dream of deathlessness endures today in the from of freezing corpses in the hopes of reanimating them at a later date, in our attempts to cure ageing, and in our motivation to upload our minds to undying computers.

Terror management theory (TMT): Is a subfield of social psychology that is derived from existentialism and the works of Ernest Becker. TMT posits that our awareness of death conflicts with our evolved desire to live and that this creates the potential for debilitating existential anxiety (i.e., “terror”). Furthermore, it proposes that humans have attempted to psychologically resolve the problem of death by inventing and sustaining self-esteem-yielding cultural worldviews that help to manage this anxiety. These cultural systems enable people to curtail death related anxiety by providing hope for immortality. According to TMT, immortality can be literal, such as a belief in an afterlife (e.g., heaven). However, we can also attain symbolic immortality through a cultural system (e.g., one’s country) which allows its adherents to construe themselves as valuable members whose memory and contributions will persist posthumously through the permanency of that culture or the objects that it fosters.

Transference (Becker’s definition of): Is a form of fetishization that entails the psychologically comforting tendency to see authority figures as protective parents. We elevate our leaders and cultural heroes to a level at which they seem invulnerable to the concerns of us mere mortals and then lean on them for protection from our fears and insecurities. We can then become heroic by simply living up to the commands and expectations that the transference object has prescribed. In this sense, we unquestioningly adopt theircausa sui project as our own which removes the anxiety provoking need to fashion meaning and purpose in life for ourselves.

The twin ontological motives: Humans are driven by two opposing existential motives: they are 1) the motive to stick out from the masses and become an individual that is special, and 2) to fit in and feel securely embedded in a culture. This tension leads to the sense that if we become too much of an individual, we might lose the existential protection derived from our cultural worldview; when one sticks out from their culture too much, he or she experiences guilt that often causes a retreat back into the safety of cultural conformity.

The vital lie: Ernest Becker referred to character as a vital lie because it is a necessary but illusory psychological construct that allows us to deny our mortality and avoid the resultant debilitating anxiety.

Worldview defense: When our cultural worldviews are threatened (see worldview threat), we react defensively against the entity that threatens them in order to reinstate and reaffirm their validity and ability to protect us from death anxiety. In response to these threats, we often engage in compensatory reactions (especially if mortality is salient) which can be categorized into the following forms of worldview defense :

  • Derogation: The belittling of others who espouse a different worldview. If we are able to dismiss an opposing view, we thereby dismiss the validity of their worldview in relation to our own.

  • Assimilation: Involves attempts towards converting worldview-opposing others to our own system of belief.

  • Accommodation: Modifying one’s own worldview to incorporate some aspects of the threatening worldview.  This is the least destructive of the four worldview threat defense strategies.

  • Annihilation: The most extreme example of a defense against worldview threat, annihilation involves aggressive action aimed at killing or injuring members of the threatening worldview.

Worldview threat: Occurs when the beliefs one creates to explain the nature of reality (i.e., cultural worldviews) to oneself are called into question, most often by a competing belief system of some Other. Because worldview threat weakens our psychological defenses against the awareness of our mortality, we often enact compensatory behaviours against competing worldviews (see worldview defense).

(Created by Andy Scott, 2018)


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The Grim Educator Copyright © 2019 by Andy Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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