Credit: Jesse Bering

Spring was in the air in Paris last week. Along the meandering Seine, there were the usual hordes of human heliotropes in lounge chairs shoved up against the walls; those on the Champs-Élysées were already donning their oversized designer sunglasses, fanning themselves and their little ones with crisply folded tourist maps; and I observed a squinting housecat sunning itself on a second-floor balcony and flicking its tail at passersby below. But not all is rosebuds, sunshine and dewdrops in The City of Lights. It’s also a place to mingle with the dead—or at least their bones.

Once you’ve breezed through the museums and done your rounds at the cafés, the famous graveyards of Paris are also a must see, and Juan and I spent a considerable amount of time during our recent visit there wandering the grounds of Montparnasse and Père Lachaise, paying our meaningless respects to the inexistent souls of Sartre, Wilde, Baudelaire, Proust and Balzac, to name just a few. I also persuaded a reluctant Juan to accompany me on a two-hour train ride to the town of Charleville-Mézières near the Belgian border, where we visited the “resting place” of enfant terrible poet Arthur Rimbaud, author of “A Season in Hell” and “Illuminations.” Back in Paris, we descended into the damp catacombs, a dimly lit, labyrinthine ossuary where the remains of six million people were reinterred in the eighteenth century after their improperly buried corpses began polluting the church grounds where they were originally disposed.

And as I ran my fingers along the walls of crumbled crypts and stared at the mildewed teeth of someone in the catacombs who ate bread a century before Napoleon was born, I experienced the familiarly acute awareness of my own fleeting existence. According to some social psychologists—namely, those who work in the area of “terror management theory”—the human mind acts predictably irrationally in response to such concrete reminders of death. In a nutshell, these researchers argue that the evolution of self-consciousness in our human ancestors came with a heavy price, which was the awareness that they were mortal. This awareness of death brought a crippling sense of anxiety, claim terror management theorists, one that interfered with our ancestors’ otherwise adaptive, everyday social behaviors. Why do anything at all if all is for naught?

To cope with this anxiety, terror management theory suggests, our species evolved a suite of psychological defenses that allowed us to accept the unavoidable reality of death while assuaging our existential fears and to get on with the business of being alive. A central component of this theory is the idea that our cultural worldviews and the unique items and artifacts that go along with these worldviews (flags, architecture, dress, food, currency, etc.) provide us a healing sense of “symbolic immortality.”

That is to say, although as biological animals we’re all headed for the same inescapable fate as those who’ve become a carbon-based tourist attraction in Paris, our culture—as a symbolic system—will outlive us, perhaps for a relative eternity. So, say terror management theorists, most people tend to endorse their own prevailing cultural worldviews because culture serves as an anxiety-reducing buffer against thoughts of death. Contribute meaningfully to this system, or at least defend it, and a part of you will live on in the cultural ethos even after you turn to dust. Other competing cultural worldviews are therefore somewhat threatening, since they’d erase you summarily from the history of life on earth if ever they eclipse and obliterate your own culture. Ever heard of the Beothuk Indians? There’s a reason for that. They went extinct in 1829 largely as a result of the European incursion into the Northern half of Newfoundland.

As far as I know, there haven’t been any psychological experiments conducted in French cemeteries. But a few have been done in nearby Germany. Now, conducting a psychology experiment in a cemetery may seem strange on the face of it, but in the context of terror management theory, it makes a lot of sense since participants are unknowingly “primed” with clear and unambiguous reminders of death. If the central premise of the theory is true—that thoughts of death trigger cultural worldview defenses—then we’d expect people in cemeteries to be more patriotic when it comes to their own cultures (and perhaps more disparaging of other cultures) than likeminded people tested in an environment without such obvious reminders of death.

In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, German psychologist Eva Jonas from Ludwig-Maximilians University and Immo Fritsche from Otto-von-Guericke University teamed up with terror management theory co-founder, social psychologist Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona, to probe the attitudes of residents from Magdeburg, Germany, regarding all things German. Pedestrians who were either in a small shopping area (control condition) or in front of a cemetery’s main entrance “with a funeral home and a stonemason store exhibiting gravestones on the other side of the street” (the mortality salience condition) were approached by an experimenter.

The experimenter asked each person if he or she would be willing to participate in a short survey about “consumption and television behavior.” Much of the survey items (24 questions in total) were simply filler—that is to say, the experimenters weren’t really interested in them, but were included to prevent the participants from cluing in to the true purpose of the study. Below are the key items the researchers used, predicting that those in the mortality salience condition would be more “pro-German” in their responses to these questions than those in the control condition.

(1) Picture you have won in a contest and you can buy a car. How likely is it that you would buy an Audi, Toyota, Volkswagen or Renault?

(2) How much do you like travelling within Germany? How much do you like travelling to foreign countries?

(3) Picture a friend would take you out for dinner. What kind of food would you prefer? How much would you like German cooking? How much would you like international cooking?

(4) What currency do you like better? How much do you like the German Mark? How much do you like the Euro?

(5) How handsome do you think German talk/game show hosts are? How handsome do you think foreign talk/game show hosts are?

(6) How likely do you think it is that Germany will win the soccer world-cup in Japan and become world champion? How likely do you think it is that Brazil will win the soccer world-cup in Japan and become world champion?

(7) How representative/appropriate do you think Paris would be as a capital for a united Europe?

As hypothesized, the data analyses revealed that “compared to participants in the control condition, mortality salience participants showed a [highly significant] decreased liked of the foreign items as well as an increased liking of German items.” The main reason the study was published in the Journal of Economic Psychology—as opposed to some other scientific journal—was the investigators’ curiosity about why the introduction of the Euro had met with some resistance in Germany. Like many other European countries, the introduction of the Euro aroused fear of negative economic consequences in Germany. Among the 12 members of the European Monetary Union, only Finland was less favorably disposed to the introduction of the Euro. The authors conclude that, “the reservations German citizens had against the Euro can be better understood when considering the function the cultural worldview serves in managing existential fears. Since the German currency represents Germany, many people feel that the loss of their national currency threatens their national identity.”

In an earlier study published in a 1996 issue of Psychological Science, another prominent terror management theorist, Tom Pyszcynski from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and his colleagues found a very similar effect of mortality salience with people from this largely conservative American town. In this study, 124 pedestrians of both genders and ranging in age from 15 to 86 years were randomly assigned to be interviewed by a female experimenter 100 m before, directly in front of (mortality salience condition), or 100 m after a funeral home. Those in the mortality salience condition were interviewed so that they faced the funeral home—“the nature of the establishment,” Pyszcynski and his co-authors assure us, “was obvious to anyone standing in front of the building.”

In this clever study, participants were asked two very simple questions: “What percentage of Americans do you estimate believe that Christian values should be taught in public schools?” and “Do you believe that Christian values should be taught in public schools?” The prediction was that participants in the mortality salience condition would overestimate the percentage of Americans who shared their views, but only if they held the minority view. The authors reason that people in the minority feel vulnerable and insecure, with their cultural worldviews at risk of being eclipsed by the majority view. In this case, the minority (45 percent) was in favor of teaching Christian values in public schools. In fact, mortality salience (facing a funeral home) led these participants to view themselves as being in the majority on this issue, an effect not seen for similarly minded participants in the two other conditions (100 meters before or after the funeral home). The authors explain it this way: “When people are reminded of their mortality, enhanced estimates of social consensus can serve to sustain the anxiety-buffering effectiveness of their cultural worldviews.”

Now, you may disagree with the explanatory interpretations of terror management theorists, but the effects as demonstrated by these experiments—and many others like them—are very real. And psychologists have notoriously struggled to reinterpret such findings using alternative theoretical frameworks. In response to a commentary on some of my own research on people’s reasoning about death, I suggested that perhaps the (very large) body of findings demonstrated by terror management theory can be better understood in terms of inclusive genetic fitness. In human beings, reputation is especially important to reproductive success, and this includes the reputations of our biological kin. If one’s genetic relative (such as a parent or sibling) is seen as a social dissident, transgressor or otherwise a threat to the in-group, then this perception has negative consequences for the individual as well. (Just ask David Dahmer, Jeffrey’s younger brother. He’s changed his last name, his whereabouts are unknown, and he does his best to get by living in complete anonymity.) Thus, when thinking about death, participants may unconsciously “play up” their commitment to the in-group because it reminds them of their own death and the reputational legacy they will leave to their living relatives. But, admittedly, that’s just my hunch; I haven’t tested this counter hypothesis.

In any event, here at home in Northern Ireland—where there’s no shortage of mortality salience primes in recent days—I deliberately bought a house next to a cemetery so that I’d wake up to birds twilling on old tombstones and be happily reminded that life is short, spurring me along to get up and do something productive. (The fact that I’ve yet to do so is testament only to my remarkable inabilities.)

In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.