Worldview Threat

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

Cultural worldviews are humanly-created, shared, symbolic conceptions of reality that infuse human existence with a sense of meaning and enduring significance, and TMT research suggests that these worldviews protect people against the anxiety of death. A cultural worldview prescribes standards for how to live a good, moral, and prosperous life. Doing so provides adherents of the worldview literal or symbolic avenues for transcending death. Because these beliefs serve an important anxiety-buffering function, any provocation that underscores the arbitrary, subjective nature of their cultural values can therefore spark existential fear and negative reactions stemming from the need to defend the worldview.

 

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.

 

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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