In October 1984, a young Skidmore College professor, Sheldon Solomon, traveled to a Utah ski lodge to introduce what would become a major theory of social psychology. The setting was a conference of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, a prestigious professional organization. Solomon’s theory explained that people embrace cultural worldviews and strive for self-esteem largely to cope with the fear of death. The reception he got was as frosty as the snow piled up outside.
The crowd’s unease was apparent as he began talking about thinkers who had influenced him, such as Marx, Kierkegaard, and Freud. At least half the audience disappeared before Solomon could lay out the full theory, recalls Jeff Greenberg, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who had developed the ideas with Solomon and was watching the talk from the back of the room. Greenberg saw some well-known psychologists physically shaking. "It was like a visceral negative reaction to what Sheldon was conveying," he says.
What Solomon was conveying, called terror-management theory, clashed with the zeitgeist of the field. Social psychology in the early 1980s focused on mini-theories that explained the details of psychological processes (for example, the cognitive underpinnings of stereotypes). Terror management, by contrast, proposed a sweeping framework of human motivation that explained phenomena as disparate as self-esteem, conformity, and prejudice. The theory drew on ideas from psychoanalysis and existential philosophy that most psychologists viewed as unscientific speculation. What’s more, its champions stuck out among the sport-coat-and-sweater-vest crowd at social-psychology conferences. The hirsute purveyors of terror-management theory seemed a better fit for Woodstock.
After their dismal debut, Solomon and Greenberg — along with a third originator of the theory, Tom Pyszczynski — tried to publish a paper about their ideas in American Psychologist, flagship journal of the American Psychological Association. They failed. "I have no doubt that this paper would be of no interest to any psychologist, living or dead," read one review in its entirety. An editor eventually gave them a more constructive response: "Although your ideas may have some validity, they won’t be taken seriously unless you can provide evidence for them."
That comment provoked a life’s work. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski have now spent a quarter-century studying how the fear of death shapes human affairs. The result is an empirical behemoth built on the foundation of a few simple propositions. One, that our awareness of death creates tremendous potential for anxiety or terror. Two, that we learn to manage that terror by embedding ourselves in a cultural worldview that imbues reality with order, meaning, and stability. Three, that we gain and maintain psychological security by sustaining faith in that worldview and living up to the values it conveys. By the researchers’ tally, more than 500 studies, in more than 25 countries, have supported hypotheses derived from this theory.