Students studying for their exams in a park, Soviet Union, late 1960s
In social psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live, but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and this terror is then managed by embracing cultural values, or symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. The theory was originally proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski.
The simplest examples of cultural values that manage the terror of death are those that purport to offer literal immortality (e.g. belief in afterlife, religion). However, TMT also argues that other cultural values – including those that are seemingly unrelated to death – offer symbolic immortality. For example, value of national identity, posterity, cultural perspectives on sex, and human superiority over animals have all been linked to death concerns in some manner. In many cases these values are thought to offer symbolic immortality either a) by providing the sense that one is part of something greater that will ultimately outlive the individual (e.g. country, lineage, species), or b) by making one's symbolic identity superior to biological nature (i.e. you are a personality, which makes you more than a glob of cells).
Because cultural values determine that which is meaningful, they are also the foundation for all self-esteem. TMT describes self-esteem as being the personal, subjective measure of how well an individual is living up to their cultural values.
TMT is derived from anthropologist Ernest Becker's 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction The Denial of Death, in which Becker argues most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death. The terror of absolute annihilation creates such a profound – albeit subconscious – anxiety in people that they spend their lives attempting to make sense of it. On large scales, societies build symbols: laws, religious meaning systems, cultures, and belief systems to explain the significance of life, define what makes certain characteristics, skills, and talents extraordinary, reward others whom they find exemplify certain attributes, and punish or kill others who do not adhere to their cultural worldview. On an individual level, self-esteem provides a buffer against death-related anxiety.