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Terror Management Theory: Thinking about death can bring out the worst in us

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Tue, 17 May 2022
Terror Management Theory: Thinking about death can bring out the worst in us

A new study makes use of big data analysis to examine terror management theory’s effects amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is a terrifying event that no one can escape — death. When was the last time you thought about it?

According to “Terror Management Theory”, such reminders of death prompt anxiety; and in order to cope with this anxiety, we do things that make us feel better about ourselves.

“For example, when researchers reminded people of death, these people reacted by reporting higher prejudice against minorities, greater intentions to donate money, and an increased preference for luxury products,” Dr Peter Chew, Senior Lecturer of Psychology at James Cook University in Singapore, explains. “However, most of these research were done in the laboratory.” Hence, Dr Chew decided to tap on the COVID-19 pandemic to better understand Terror Management Theory and how people would react in a real-world situation.

To date, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more than 500 million cases worldwide, along with over six million deaths. Dr Chew’s study focused on Singapore by examining Google Trends before and after the first COVID-19 case was identified in the country (on January 23 2020).

In the study, it was assumed that the search terms reflect an intention to learn more about a specific topic, with the goal of carrying out relevant behaviour. For example, donation-related searches would reflect intentions to donate with the goal of eventually donating resources. Additionally, it was also assumed that increases in the search interest of a topic reflect increases in the occurrences of a related event. For example, increases in racism-related searches reflect increases in public racist incidents taking place.

Consequently, the study revealed that search interests on death increased significantly during COVID-19, suggesting that the severity of the pandemic served as a striking reminder of our mortality. Dr Chew added, “A similar trend was observed for topics like racism and donation, suggesting an increase in racist incidents and donation intentions.”

However, such interest in luxury products actually decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic. This could be explained by the negative impact COVID-19 has had on the economy, causing people to be unwilling or unable to splurge on luxury products.

As the first study to examine the predictions of terror management theory in real-world situations, these findings are important as they show that these predictions are moderately supported outside of a controlled environment. Furthermore, the study demonstrates that when we are confronted with our own mortality, we tend to seek security in our cultural worldview and our self-esteem to feel better — in other words, we gravitate towards those similar to ourselves and disparage those we view as different.

Given that thinking about our own mortality can bring out the worst in us, it is important to seek help if we feel like we might be in distress.


Chew, P. K. H. (2022). Big Data Analysis of Terror Management Theory’s Predictions in the COVID-19 Pandemic. OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying.

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Dr Peter Chew [email protected]
Media: Mr Edwin Teo [email protected]