ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2021, Vol. 29 ›› Issue (3): 492-504.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2021.00492

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Controversies in terror management theory research and its implications for research on the psychology of death

MENG Xianghan1, LI Qiang1,2(), ZHOU Yanbang1, WANG Jin3   

  1. 1Department of Social Psychology, Nankai University, Tianjin 300350, China
    2Binhai College, Nankai University, Tianjin 300270, China
    3Tianjin University of Technology and Education, Tianjin 300222, China
  • Received:2020-02-29 Online:2021-03-15 Published:2021-01-26
  • Contact: LI Qiang


Psychology of death remains a complex psychological state of cognition, emotion, and behavioral intention in the face of death and death-related events. Currently, the most comprehensive and scientific theory that investigates death psychology is the Terror Management Theory (TMT). However, TMT has the following controversies: (1) In terms of three basic cognitive aspects of death, the theory presents inconsistent research results on whether death is independent of uncertainty, whether death causes fear, and whether individual survival is a central issue for human beings; (2) On the socio-cultural level, the cultural background of the inventor of TMT generally denies death. However, cross-cultural studies demonstrate that other cultures treat death with attitudes such as acceptance and contempt; (3) Finally, there exist a lot of contradictions in the research results of TMT. This indicates that there are important regulatory factors that were not involved in the present study. 
On this basis, the possible research directions of death psychology can be summarized from the aspects of cognition, behavior, and society. Studies at the cognitive level have found that people often have a sense of uncertainty when facing death. Enhancing the sense of belonging can effectively alleviate death anxiety; meanwhile, gaining a greater sense of the significance of life can make accepting death easier. Behavioral level studies have revealed that death anxiety has the property of embodiment cognition. Perhaps researchers need to reevaluate studies on the psychology of death from an embodied cognition perspective. In addition, death-related rituals perform both practical and symbolic functions, and the study of these functions and underlying mechanisms can be carried out from two aspects: the bottom-up and the top-down. Investigations of the social level have discovered that the psychological content and process of death in different cultures can be abstracted into a series of core dimensions which can be used as a prototype to predict and intervene the reality. In the present society, people are less psychologically prepared to face death. Therefore, it is urgent to carry out scientific research on content and process of Chinese people's psychology of death. 
    In the future, the death psychology research should regard science and culture with equal attention. On one hand, the basic research on the psychology of death can use more objective measures such as heart rate, electrodermal activity, cortisol, and brain imaging techniques. On the other hand, traditional but underappreciated methods should be used to supplement laboratory research, such as qualitative research, case study, longitudinal study, etc. Secondly, the study of death psychology should be combined with the cognitive construction of death ontology, as well as procedures and coping behaviors for death. Thirdly, death is an individual event, a social event, and, sometimes, a political event. Therefore, researchers need to pay attention to the psychological patterns of the group in the face of death in order to understand questions such as how to construct the psychological defense system of death in modern society and how the death narrative evolves. Lastly, death events tend to cause fear and anxiety among the exposed individuals or groups. In severe cases, mental disorders such as PTSD may occur along with chronic physical diseases, though the clinical mechanism of this process is unclear. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out research on mental and physical health intervention under the influence of the psychology of death to assist individuals to develop a healthy lifestyle.

Key words: terror management theory, death psychology, indigenous psychology, cultural background, content-process

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