Terror Management Theory On Women, the Body, Sex, and Children

At some point, terror management theorists are going to attempt to explain everything in the universe with their theory (I suspect we'll see a paper titled "Mortality Salience and the Bose-Einstein Condensate" in the next few years). Since I've already talked about terror management theory work on religion, politics, and aesthetics (here and here), I suppose the next place to go is obvious: sex. And while we're at it, we might as well throw in women, children, and the body.

If you're new to the terror management discussion, terror management theory (TMT from now on) is quite simple. It says that when we think about our own death (in TMT terms, when mortality salience is high), we experience anxiety, and as a result, we seek out meaning, coherence, and fun stuff like that. Several studies over the last few years have explored the relationship between mortality salience and our attitudes towards women, sex, our bodies, and most recently, reproduction. In this post, I'm going to talk about them all. So grab a cup of your favorite beverage, turn off the TV, and enjoy.

The Body

Let's start with the body.. One of the implications theorists have derived from TMT is that high mortality salience (MS, from now on) makes us pay more attention to our own self-worth, because, according to TMT, "the primary function of self-esteem is to protect individuals from existential anxiety associated with awareness of the inevitability of death"1. As a result of the connection between self-esteem and MS (which causes us to cling to cultural values), "self-esteem requires investment in particular standards of value and positive evaluation of one's standing on these standards"2. One of these "standards of value" is, of course, physical attractiveness, so a prediction of TMT is that, when MS is high, individuals with high bodily self-esteem will tend to focus more on their bodies to reduce their existential anxiety.

To test this prediction, Goldenberg et al.3 used a standard mortality salience manipulation in which participants either answered questions about death (high MS condition) or watching television (low MS condition), along with a bodily self-esteem measure, and a "bodily-identification questionnaire" designed, as the name suggests, to determine how strongly people identified with their bodies. That questionnaire began with these instructions:

The following items can all be conceived of as part of one's self. Please respond to each item by indicating how important it is to your sense of self and who you are. Please respond according to how you feel at this particular moment; there are no right or wrong answers.

Consistent with the predictions of TMT, Goldenberg et al. found that participants with high bodily self-esteem scored higher on the bodily-identification questionnaire (indicating higher levels of body-identification) in the high MS condition than in the low MS condition, while participants with low bodily self-esteem did not differ in their bodily identification in the two conditions.

In their second study, Goldenberg et al. tested another prediction derived from the hypothesized connection between self-esteem and MS: people with high bodily self-esteem will find activities that involve the body, like sex, more appealing when MS is high. Once again, they used the death or TV questions to manipulate MS, and gave people a bodily self-esteem questionnaire. They also gave people a questionnaire developed to measure the attractiveness of two aspects of sex: the body-centered and the personal. The body-centered aspects of sex are those that concern the physical act itself, while the personal aspects are those that involve the personal connection between the participants. The TMT prediction, of course, is that when MS is high, people with high bodily self-esteem will like the physical aspects of sex more than when MS is low. And that's what they found (see the graph below, presenting the data from Goldenberg et al.'s Figure 2, p. 123). People with low bodily self-esteem actually liked the physical aspects of sex less when MS was high than when it was low, though this difference wasn't quite statistically significant.


In a third study, they also found that people with low bodily self-esteem monitored their bodies less when MS was high than when it was low, while people with high bodily self-esteem monitired their bodies more when MS was high. Combined, these three studies demonstrate that when we're happy with our bodies (i.e., we feel that they meet cultural standards of beauty), concentrating on our bodies, and on the things we do with it (like sex), can alleviate the anxiety associated with thinking about death. Goldenberg et al. believe that these results may have implications for the problems experienced by people with low bodily self-esteem. They write:

If the human body does indeed function as an important source of self-esteem and protection against basic human fears, it is little wonder that one's body can be the source of great distress and lead to difficulties such as eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, depression, anxiety, and shame among those who believe that they are not living up to the culture's standards. (p. 127)


One of the questions that's been bugging me for years is, why has always been, and continues to be, taboo, when most of us clearly like it? I don't have an answer, but I bet TMT theory does. Hold on, let me check. Oh, yup, it does. And here it is4:

If humans manage the terror associated with death by clinging to a symbolic cultural view of reality, then reminders of one's corporeal animal nature would threaten the efficacy of this anxiety-buffering mechanism. As argued by Becker, the body and its functions are therefore a particular problem for humans. How can people rest assured that they exist on a more meaningful and higher (and hence longer lasting) plane than mere animals, when the sweat, bleed, defecate, and procreate, just like other animals? Or as Erich Fromm expressed it, "Why did man not go insane in the face of an existential contradiction between a symbolic self, that seems to give man infinite worth in a timeless scheme of things, and a body that is worth about 98 cents?" From the perspective of TMT, then, the uneasiness surrounding sex is a result of existential implications of sexual behavior for beings that cope with the threat of death by living their lives on an abstract symbolic plane. (p. 2)

The "uneasiness surrounding sex" that is a "result of existential implications of sexual behavior" have resulted in a long tradition of regulating sexual behavior, and of trying to make sex more meaningful by making it about love and marriage and all that. Starting with this hypothesis, Goldenberg et al. (different paper, mostly the same but shuffled et al.)5 predicted that when we're reminded of our animal nature (Goldenberg et al. call it "creaturliness," which makes me chuckle), then thinking about the physical aspects of sex will make death thoughts more accessible (i.e., MS will go up). In other words, according to TMT, "let's do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel" just isn't a very good pick up line. Goldenberg et al. first had participants read one of two essays: a creatureliness (chuckle) essay, which highlighted the similarities between humans and other animals, or a "uniqueness" essay, which stressed the differences between humans and other animals. Participants then answered questions about either the physical aspects of sex, or the personal aspects (similar to the second study in the other Goldberg et al. described above). Finally, participants were given 25 word fragments to complete, five of which could be completed with either death-related or non-death-related words (e.g., COFF_ _ can be COFFIN or COFFEE). Since TMT predicts that when people think about their animal nature, thinking about the physical aspects of sex will make death thoughts more salient, the specific prediction in this study is that people will be more likely to complete those five word fragments with death-related words when they read the creatureliness essay and answer questions about the physical aspects of sex than when they read the uniqueness essay and/or answer questions about the personal aspects of sex. They found that, and that the personal aspects of sex made death more accessible after reading the uniqueness essay, though that difference wasn't quite statistically significant (see the graph, from Goldenberg et al.'s Table 1, p. 5).


In a second study, they found that the physical aspects of sex were less attractive to participants in a high MS condition, after they'd read a "creatureliness" essay. At first this may seem at odds with the results from the study two in the Goldenberg et al. paper, in which high MS increased the attractiveness of the physical aspects of sex in individuals with high bodily self-esteem, but the results are actually pretty consistent. You can think of the creatureliness essay as making thinking about the body as less likely to increase self-esteem, and therefore less likely to mitigate existential anxiety, so the physical aspects of sex will seem less attractive when MS is high. These two studies therefore provide a clue as to why we are ambivalent about sex, and perhaps even why other bodily functions are frequently the subject of taboos. Sex and other bodily functions remind us of our animal nature, and thus our mortality, and that makes us anxious.


Alright, so we've covered sex and the body, but if mortality reminds us of anything, it's children. Our offspring carry on our names, and our genes, providing us with a sort of life after death. As you might imagine, then, TMT predicts that thinking about offspring will mitigate existential anxiety. Thus, when MS is high, we're more likely to think about having children. Consistent with this, Fritsche et al., in a paper in press at the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology6, found that after a MS manipulation similar to those in the previous studies, participants in a high MS condition had a higher "desire for offspring" than participants in a low MS condition. In fact, while none of the participants in the high MS condition indicated that they had no desire to have children, one male and five female participants (out of 44) in the low MS condition reported no desire to have children. In a second study, they found that "offspring related thoughts" increased in a high MS condition, relative to a low MS condition.

In their final study, Fritsche et al. utilized a finding from previous studies in which high MS caused people to evaluate members of outgroups more negatively. They manipulated "offspring salience" (I wish I was making these labels up) by having East German participants either answer questions about having children (high offspring salience) or about watching children (low offspring salience), and then manipulated mortality salience. They then answered questions about an ingroup (East Germans) and an outgroup (West Germans). The results showed that when offspring salience was low, high MS led to more negative evaluations of the outgroup, but when offspring salience was high, MS did not lead to more negative out group evaluations. So thinking about having children mitigated the effects of thinking about death on the perception of outgroup members.



So far, we've learned that thinking about death makes people with high bodily self-esteem think about their bodies more, that it makes the physical aspects of sex less attractive when we're reminded of our animal nature, and that thinking about having children reduces existential anxiety. What do the body, sex, and children have in common? Well, a lot of things, I suppose, but one of them is that they're associated with women. In fact, they're all three associated with aspects of sexism and the objectification of women. Writing from a TMT perspective, Goldenberg and Roberts7 note:

Historically, conceptions of women's nature have emphasized women's connection to nature as a primary source of female inferiority. Philosophical and religious perspectives have long emphasized the "mind" and the "soul" as the defining characteristics that elevate humans above the status of other mere physical animals. Women, in contrast to men, have been viewed as being ruled by their physical bodies, sensations, and emotions and therefore perceived as more distant from the Gods and closer to the status of other animals. (p. 74)

They also argue that we tend to associate women with reproduction, and things like menstruation serve to remind us of women's animal nature. Given the results of the studies I've described in this post, Goldenberg and Roberts argue that our ambivalence towards women (seeing them as sexual objects and as ideal forms) is a result of the existential anxiety our representations of women cause. They write:

We therefore maintain that there are two ways to defend against the threatening aspects of human physicality. First we can deny, conceal, and certainly devalue our more creaturely features, but, alternatively, we can also strip the threatening connotations of the physical body by imbuing those aspects of nature with symbolic, cultural meaning and value. It is in these two strategies of defense that we can better understand the duality of cultural reactions toward women and their bodies, which range, for example, from confinement to menstrual huts to the idealization of the female "nude" in both art and advertising. (p. 74)

This cultural representation of women even leads women to try to present themselves more ideally, and thus "conceal and control" those aspects of their bodies that will remind themselves and others of their animal nature.

Of course, one has to ask why women get this rap, when men have bodies, and thus an obvious animal nature, too. Goldenberg and Roberts suggest that one reason might simply be that men, traditionally, have had more social and economic power, and thus the way we represent women is determined more by men than women. In other words, it's the patriarchy's fault. They don't present any research designed to answer this question, however, so it's still an open one. They do, however, discuss a series of studies that suggest it really is women, and not men, who make us uncomfortable for existential reasons, and that men are to blame for this.

In their first study, Landau et al.8 showed that when MS as high, straight men, but not straight women, rated photos of members of the opposite sex as less attractive than they did when MS was low. In another study, they showed that when MS is high, men are less likely to act as though they are sexually interested in an attractive woman. In a third study, they found that high MS made straight men less interested in an overtly sexual woman, but did not affect their interest in a "wholesome" woman. And in a fifth study, they showed that in a high MS condition, men primed to think about "corporeal lust" were more tolerant of physical aggression towards women than men in the low MS condition and men who had not been primed to think about "corporeal lust." So, it looks like the physical and sexual aspects of women affect men in a way that increases MS, or makes it more difficult to relieve the anxiety associated with MS, while the physical aspects of men do not have the same affect on women.

To wrap up, then, the studies described in this post serve to bring TMT closer to its goal of explaining life, the universe, and everything. Because of the relationship between our bodies and our self-esteem on the one hand, and self-esteem and terror management on the other, thinking about death can either make us like our bodies more, or less, depending on whether they fit with cultural standards. It can also make us like sex less, if we think about sex from a strictly physical perspective, and are reminded that we're animals, and thus mortal. On the other hand, if we think about sex from a personal, romantic perspective, it's all good mortality salience-wise. Third, thinking about death makes us want to have kids. And finally, because we represent women as sexual objects, and thus think about their bodies, we have a tendency to repress their bodily/sexual nature, and present them in more ideal forms, to avoid thinking about our own mortality.

1Goldenberg, J.L., McCoy, S.K., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2000). The body as a source of self-esteem: The effect of mortality salience on identification with one's body, interest in sex, and appearance monitoring. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(1), 118-130. p. 118
2Ibid, p. 119
4Goldenberg, J.L., Cox, C.R., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2002). Understanding human ambivalence about sex: The effects of stripping sex of meaning. The Journal of Sex Research, 39(4), 310-320.
6Fritsche, I., Jonas, E., Fischer, P., Koranyi, N., Berger, N., Fleischmann, B. (In Press). Mortality salience and the desire for offspring. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
7Goldenberg, J. L., & Roberts, T. A. (2004). The beast within the beauty: An existential perspective on the objectification and condemnation of women. In J. Greenberg, S. L., Koole, and T. Pyszczynski (Eds.), Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology (pp.71-85). New York: Guilford.
8Landau, M.J., Goldenberg, J.L., Greenberg, J., Gillath, O., Solomon, S., Cox, C., Martens, A., & Pyszczynski, T. (2006). The siren's call: Terror management and the threat of men's sexual attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(1), 129-146.

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Great post, with potentially salient cultural implications.

The data presented here are really quite compelling in terms of supporting the conclusions of TMT, but the justifications that come along with them read a lot like the just-so stories that evo psych was justifiably criticised for. To me, that suggests there's something to it, but probably not as much as its advocates would have us believe. There has to be some other model out there, yet to be discovered, that encompasses TMT's findings without the pesky gaps and the all-explaining problem that TMT and string theory seem to share.

As for the gaps, I mean the patriarchy bit, which seems to beg the question. There ought to be some reason, within the context of TMT, why women are seen as more "creaturely" than men, or else maybe TMT has hit a limit in this particular area. If they want to claim relevance in the area of gender relations, their theory should somehow explain the patriarchy instead of relying on it to explain another point.

Joshua, I wouldn't blame the patriarchy blaming on TMT. That wasn't meant to be a TMT position, but a potential explanation out there (they also discuss Freudian explanations).

Clark, you know, every time I write about it I want to use the word "finitude." It is very Being and Time. And I really do think there's something to it, too.

Also, this "creaturliness" concept seems remarkably similar to the whole 'keepin' it real' thing, maybe that is one of those cultural coping mechanisms you discussed, giving the creature-whatever a more positive spin and alleviating some anxiety.

Chris, Fair enough. Thanks for the clarification. It's good to know that the patriarchy explanation was meant to be a conjecture rather than a conclusion they were drawing from their evidence. (The latter doesn't seem to have support, but of course the former doesn't really require any.)

I find it a bit disturbing that such a silly theory can be highly regarded by intelligent people...

Let me offer a mild criticism...
If i get it right,when somebody has his fear of death enhanced(fear is a state of arousal of course) by whatever means,he will concentrate more on his body on the condition of course that he values his body,in other words on the condition that he has a positive view of his body.This concentration on his body will help him reduce the anxiety associated with thoughts about death.

Well,let's suppose that i'm going through a divorce and all the hassles associated with it.I am in great distress often,i feel bad,i feel uncomfortable.I am also a quite competent guitarist and i value my guitar playing,i can do quite a few things.It's perfectly reasonable to assume that during these times of distress i will concentrate more on the guitar and my guitar playing if not for anything else,at least to forget my worries,to alleviate my distress in other words.In this example i concentrate on something i enjoy(guitar)so as to alleviate my distress.If i valued my body it's quite probable that i would concentrate on my body to relieve my discomfort.

In other words when we are in a state of discomfort we 'cling' to the things we are happy with,for example our bodies or our guitar playing or having sex or whatever else we enjoy,so as to reduce our discomfort and this discomfort does not have to be associated with death.

Furthermore,according to this theory,people with a high mortality salience,in other words people who felt more fear by thoughts related to death found the physical aspect of sex more appealing.I bet that,had these people been burglars the fear of getting caught would have also made the physical aspect of sex appealing to them.
What i'm saying here is that fear is an arousal state and when we are in an arousal state we tend to be more easily sexually aroused and in general finding everything that is sex-related to be more alluring.This arousal doesn't have to be related to death thoughts.

By John Smile (not verified) on 04 Jan 2008 #permalink