The Role of Death in Life: Existential Aspects of Human Motivation

THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF MOTIVATION, R. Ryan, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Motivation, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011

63 Pages Posted: 5 Mar 2011

See all articles by Pelin Kesebir

Pelin Kesebir

University of Wisconsin - Madison - Center for Investigating Healthy Minds

Tom Pyszczynski

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Date Written: March 2, 2011

Abstract

The capacity for self-reflection, which plays an important role in human self-regulation, also leads people to become aware of the limitations of their existence. Awareness of the conflict between one’s desires (e.g., to live) and the limitations of existence (e.g., the inevitability of death) creates the potential for existential anxiety. In this chapter, we review how this anxiety affects human motivation and behavior in a variety of life domains. Terror management theory and research suggests that transcending death and protecting oneself against existential anxiety are potent needs. This protection is provided by an anxiety buffering system, which imbues people with a sense of meaning and value that function to shield them against these concerns. We review evidence of how the buffering system protects against existential anxiety in four dimensions of existence - the physical, personal, social, and spiritual domains. Because self-awareness is a prerequisite for existential anxiety, escaping self-awareness can also be an effective a way to obviate the problem of existence. After elaborating on how existential anxiety can motivate escape from self-awareness, we conclude the chapter with a discussion of remaining issues and directions for future research and theory development.

Keywords: Terror management theory, experimental existential psychology, death anxiety, existential anxiety, motivation

Suggested Citation

Kesebir, Pelin and Pyszczynski, Tom, The Role of Death in Life: Existential Aspects of Human Motivation (March 2, 2011). THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF MOTIVATION, R. Ryan, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Motivation, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1775067

Pelin Kesebir (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin - Madison - Center for Investigating Healthy Minds ( email )

1500 Highland Avenue, Suite S119
Waisman Center
Madison, WI 53705-2280
United States

Tom Pyszczynski

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs ( email )

1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway
Colorado Springs, CO 80918-7150
United States

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