Worldview Threat

Our existential situation shapes how we interact with those deemed different from ourselves.

Our worldview protects us from our existential fear literally and symbolically. It is probably obvious how many religions comfort us in a literal sense: They explain how we live on after death (e.g., Hades, Heaven, Sheol, reincarnation, etc.). Secular worldviews can also alleviate death anxiety (e.g., such as taking comfort in our recycling of the atoms in our body according to the Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy). It is important to note TMT does not say that any one of these worldviews is correct—either a  secular view or a particular religion. Rather, TMT points out how these beliefs function to provide us with a sense of immortality. Worldviews also provide us with symbolic immortality. When we are part of a culture, we are part of something larger than ourselves, something immortal—our community, our nation. In this sense, our worldview explains where we have come from, and what will endure after us, as well as what our place is in the world. We derive a lot of our self-esteem from being part of a like-minded group, whether that be a large-scale religious community or a small scale niche community (e.g., goths, hipsters). 

 

Because all worldviews are to some extent arbitrary, fictional assemblages about the nature of reality, they require continual validation from others in order remain believable. Exposure to cultures of people with alternate worldviews, especially those that are diametrically opposed to one’s own, therefore, potentially undermines one’s faith in the dominant worldview and the psychological protection it provides. Thus, contact with others who define reality in different ways undermines an assumed consensus for people’s death-denying ideologies, and therefore (directly and/or indirectly) calls both one’s worldview and source of self-esteem into question.

 

Our worldview is like a winter jacket protecting us from the icy wind of existential terror; it provides us with a shared set of beliefs about the nature of reality to help us deal with our anxiety over death. Worldviews provide us a sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of security in an unsure world. If someone challenges our worldview, they tear a hole in our jacket, letting that icy existential dread in… and we react to that threat. Thus, as individuals we can be verbally or even physically violent, and as societies we can cause tremendous harm to cultures whose existence reminds us that our worldview is constructed and thus not as immortal as we might think.

Worldview threat occurs when the beliefs one creates to explain the nature of reality (i.e., cultural worldviews) to oneself are called into question, most often by a competing belief system of some Other. Because worldview threat weakens our psychological defenses against the awareness of our mortality, we often enact compensatory behaviours against competing worldviews, and TMT researchers have identified 4 forms of worldview defense to reinstate and reaffirm the validity of our worldview and thus protect us from death anxiety:

Suggested Readings for further study:

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, NY: Free Press.

Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York, NY: Free Press.

Schimel, J., Hayes, J., Williams, T. & Jahrig, J. (2007). Is death really the worm at the core? Converging evidence that worldview threat increases death-thought accessibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 789-803.

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The worm at the core: On the role of death in life. New York, NY: Random House.

 

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