This is the original introduction for a Letter, tentatively titled, "Can unconscious motivation explain the Climate Crisis."
The purpose of this note is to alert researchers and activists to a recent development in social psychology which offers a scientifically validated way to understand the unconscious motivations of activists and others involved in social movements. Over the last 25 years, terror management theory (TMT) (Pyszczynski et al., 1999; 2004) has demonstrated its validity through hundreds of controlled experiments. This new approach has proved theoretically sound, as well as applicable in a wide range of practical situations. It has been applied in marketing, management, psychotherapy, politics, economics, and other areas. Terror management theory is based upon the work of a cultural anthropologist (Becker, 1973) (A Foundation has been established to disseminate the results of research in this area to both academics and the public at large. URL: http://www.ernestbecker.org/).
Terror management theory
The theory attempts to explain the foundations of culture and of personal identity. It is a subset of a framework that is known as generative death anxiety. The underlying idea of this framework is that many creative acts can be explained by the desire for immortality in some form, for example, through monuments, buildings, or other lasting objects or symbols. TMT considers culture to be a societal level reflection of individual identity processes. It defines culture as a system of meanings that supersedes the natural world and elevates humans to a higher plane of existence. It defines social identity as our membership in groups.
Terror management theory assumes that at a certain point in human evolution cognitive complexity reached a level which enabled self-awareness. This capacity for self-awareness and the corresponding awareness that the self will cease to exist in the future is the foundation for terror management theory. That is, the awareness of the inevitability of death in an animal programmed for self-preservation by evolution leads to the potential for paralyzing terror. The human species created culture to control this terror. Cultural worldviews ameliorate anxiety by:
:conceiving a universe with meaning
:providing standards of value
:promising death transcendence to those who meet those standards.
That is, terror management theory assumes that a successful society must create a cultural anxiety buffer that shields the individual from the awareness of death. When a death reminder is encountered, it is expected that one of two types of psychological reactions take place. One is worldview defense, that is, responses reinforcing the cultural belief system. The other is a striving to increase status, as defined by the cultural belief system, and thereby self-esteem, since increases in self-esteem have been shown to reduce anxiety. In the well adjusted individual, these responses occur unconsciously, so the individual need never become aware of the death reminder or the processes that suppress awareness of it.
Psychological Emergence of the Self and Modern Socio-Cultural Dilemmas