Mortality salience

Mortality salience is the awareness by an individual that his or her death is inevitable.

The term derives from terror management theory, which proposes that mortality salience causes existential anxiety that may be buffered by an individual's cultural worldview and/or sense of self-esteem.

Hamlet contemplates the skull of Yorick, Hamlet (1913)

Terror management theory

Mortality salience engages the conflict that humans have to face both their instinct to avoid death completely, and their intellectual knowledge that avoiding death is ultimately futile. According to terror management theory, when human beings begin to contemplate their mortality and their vulnerability to death, feelings of terror emerge because of the simple fact that humans want to avoid their inevitable death.[1] Mortality salience comes into effect, because humans contribute all of their actions to either avoiding death or distracting themselves from the contemplation of it. Thus, terror management theory asserts that almost all human activity is driven by the fear of death.

Most research done on terror management theory revolves around the mortality salience paradigm. It has been found that religious individuals as well as religious fundamentalists are less vulnerable to mortality salience manipulations, and so religious believers engage in cultural worldview defense to a lesser extent than nonreligious individuals.[2]


Mortality salience is highly manipulated by one's self-esteem. Individuals with low self-esteem are more apt to experience the effects of mortality salience, whereas individuals with high self-esteem are better able to cope with the idea that their death is uncontrollable. As an article states, "according to terror management theory, increased self-esteem should enhance the functioning of the cultural anxiety buffer and thereby provide protection against death concerns".[3]

Potential to cause worldview defense

Mortality salience has the potential to cause worldview defense, a psychological mechanism that strengthens people's connection with their in-group as a defense mechanism. Studies also show that mortality salience can lead people to feel more inclined to punish minor moral transgressions. One such study divided a group of judges into two groups—one that was asked to reflect upon their own mortality, and one group that was not. The judges were then asked to set a bond for an alleged prostitute. The group that had reflected on mortality set an average bond of $455, while the control group's average bond was $50.[4]

Another study found that mortality salience could cause an increase in support for martyrdom and military intervention. It found that students who had reflected on their mortality showed preference towards people who supported martyrdom, and indicated they might consider martyrdom themselves. They also found that, especially among students who were politically conservative, mortality salience increased support for military intervention, but not among students who were politically liberal.[5]

Gender, emotion and sex

A study tested "the hypothesis that mortality salience intensifies gender differences in reactions to sexual and emotional infidelity". In the study, participants were asked to work through packets that had mortality salience manipulation questions in each. In the results, they found that "sex is more relevant to the self-esteem of men than women and being in a committed relationship is relatively more important to women than for men". Therefore, when linking mortality salience to gender, emotion, and sex, men are more likely to suffer from sexual infidelity, and women are more likely to suffer from emotional infidelity. The results of this study showed that there is a logistic regression revealing a significant three-way interaction between gender, sex value, and mortality salience for the item pitting "passionate sex" against "emotional attachment".[6]

Individuals exposed to near-death experiences

With mortality salience, humans who have encountered near-death experiences develop a greater sense of self and meaning to life. It has been shown that individuals who face these experiences tend to invest more into relationships, political beliefs, religious beliefs, and other beliefs over material things. As a patient with AIDS shared, "Because of my illness I have nothing to hide. It has freed me because now I am completely honest". Developing a cultural worldview provides humans with comfort from the thought of their own inevitable death. This coping mechanism has shown to highly improve the self-worth of humans and highly alleviates existential anxiety.

See also


  1. ^ Whitley, Bernard; Kite, Mary (2010). The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination (2 ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. pp. 251–254.
  2. ^ Wojtkowiak, Joanna; Rutjens, Bastiaan T. (2011). "The postself and terror management theory: Reflecting on after death identity buffers existential threat". The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 21 (2): 137–144. doi:10.1080/10508619.2011.557008.
  3. ^ Harmon-Jones, Eddie; Simon, Linda; Greenberg, Jeff; Pyszczynski, Tom; Solomon, Sheldon; McGregor, Holly (1997). "Terror management theory and self-esteem: Evidence that increased self-esteem reduces mortailty salience effects" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 72 (1): 24–36. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.72.1.24. PMID 9008372. Retrieved October 12, 2015.
  4. ^ Pyszczynski, Thomas; Jeff Greenberg; Sheldon Solomon (2003). In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. American Psychological Association. ISBN 9781557989543.
  5. ^ Pyszczynski, Tom; Abdolhossein Abdollahi; Sheldon Solomon; Jeff Greenberg; Florette Cohen; David Weise (2006). "Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might: The Great Satan Versus the Axis of Evil". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 32 (4): 525–37. doi:10.1177/0146167205282157. PMID 16513804. Retrieved 2009-04-07.
  6. ^ Goldenberg, Jamie; Landau, Mark J.; Pyszczynski, Tom; Cox, Cathy R.; Greenberg, Jeff; Solomon, Sheldon; Dunnam, Heather (December 2003). "Gender-Typical Response to Sexual and Emotional Infidelity as a Function of Mortality Salience Induced Self-Esteemed Striving". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 29 (12): 1585–1595. doi:10.1177/0146167203256880. PMID 15018688. Retrieved October 12, 2015.
Algor mortis

Algor mortis (Latin: algor—coldness; mortis—of death), the second stage of death, is the change in body temperature post mortem, until the ambient temperature is matched. This is generally a steady decline, although if the ambient temperature is above the body temperature (such as in a hot desert), the change in temperature will be positive, as the (relatively) cooler body acclimates to the warmer environment. External factors can have a significant influence.

The term was first used by Dowler in 1849. The first published measurements of the intervals of temperature after death were done by Dr John Davey in 1839.

Anxiety buffer disruption theory

Anxiety buffer disruption theory (ABDT) is an application of terror management theory to explain an individual's reaction to a traumatic event, which leads to post traumatic stress disorder. Terror management theory posits that humans, unlike any other organism, are uniquely aware that death is the inevitable outcome of life. When thoughts of death are made salient, such as when a terrorist attack carries those thoughts into the level of consciousness, humans are subject to debilitating anxiety unless it can be "buffered." Humans respond to the anxiety and dread mortality salience produces by clinging to their cultural worldview, through self-esteem and also close personal relationships. Cultural worldviews, with their cultural norms, religious beliefs and moral values infuse life with meaning. They give life a feeling of normalcy and also a feeling of control. There is no way to definitely prove one's cultural world view, there they are fragile human constructs and must be maintained. Clinging to a cultural worldview and self-esteem buffer the anxiety connected to thoughts of mortality. When thoughts of death are salient, humans are drawn to their cultural world view which "stipulates appropriate social requirements, and standards for valued conduct, while instilling one's life with meaning, order and permanence." When a traumatic experience cannot be assimilated into a currently held cultural worldview, the anxiety-buffering mechanisms are disrupted. ABDT argues that individuals face overwhelming anxiety which leads to the symptoms of PTSD including re-experiencing, hyper-arousal, avoidance and disassociation. The dissociation causes atypical responses to mortality salience compared with individuals who do not suffer from an anxiety buffer disruption When the anxiety buffer disruption is mild, exaggerated coping responses, such as rejecting or taking offense at other cultures, is expected. When the anxiety buffer disruption is severe, there can be a total breakdown of coping mechanisms. The theory was proposed by Tom Pyszczynski and Pelin Kesebir.

Birthday effect

The birthday effect (sometimes called the birthday blues, especially when referring specifically to suicide) is a statistical phenomenon where an individual's likelihood of death appears to increase on or close to their birthday. The birthday effect has been seen in studies of general populations in England and Wales, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the United States, as well as in smaller populations such as Major League Baseball players. Studies do not consistently show this effect; some studies find that men's and women's mortality rates diverge in the run-up to the birthday, while others find no significant gender effect. Suggested mechanisms for the effect include alcohol consumption, psychological stress relating to the birthday, increased suicide risk, terminally ill patients attempting to hold on until their birthday, an increased mortality salience, or a physiological cycle that causes the body to weaken annually. It has also been suggested that it may be a statistical artifact, perhaps as a result of anomalies in reporting, but the birthday effect has also been seen in studies that control for known reporting anomalies.

Dead on arrival

Dead on arrival (DOA), also dead in the field and brought in dead (BID), indicates that a patient was found to be already clinically dead upon the arrival of professional medical assistance, often in the form of first responders such as emergency medical technicians, paramedics, or police.

In some jurisdictions, first responders must consult verbally with a physician before officially pronouncing a patient deceased, but once cardiopulmonary resuscitation is initiated, it must be continued until a physician can pronounce the patient dead.

Death messenger

Death messengers, in former times, were those who were dispatched to spread the news that an inhabitant of their city or village had died. They were to wear unadorned black and go door to door with the message, "You are asked to attend the funeral of the departed __________ at (time, date, and place)." This was all they were allowed to say, and were to move on to the next house immediately after uttering the announcement. This tradition persisted in some areas to as late as the mid-19th century.

Death rattle

Terminal respiratory secretions (or simply terminal secretions), known colloquially as a death rattle, are sounds often produced by someone who is near death as a result of fluids such as saliva and bronchial secretions accumulating in the throat and upper chest. Those who are dying may lose their ability to swallow and may have increased production of bronchial secretions, resulting in such an accumulation. Usually, two or three days earlier, the symptoms of approaching death can be observed as saliva accumulates in the throat, making it very difficult to take even a spoonful of water. Related symptoms can include shortness of breath and rapid chest movement. While death rattle is a strong indication that someone is near death, it can also be produced by other problems that cause interference with the swallowing reflex, such as brain injuries.It is sometimes misinterpreted as the sound of the person choking to death, or alternatively, that they are gargling.

Dignified death

Dignified death is a somewhat elusive concept often related to suicide. One factor that has been cited as a core component of dignified death is maintaining a sense of control. Another view is that a truly dignified death is an extension of a dignified life. There is some concern that assisted suicide does not guarantee a dignified death, since some patients may experience complications such as nausea and vomiting. There is some concern that age discrimination denies the elderly a dignified death.


In medicine, dysthanasia means "bad death" and is considered a common fault of modern medicine.Dysthanasia occurs when a person who is dying has their biological life extended through technological means without regard to the person's quality of life. Technologies such as an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, artificial ventilation, ventricular assist devices, and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation can extend the dying process.

Dysthanasia is a term generally used when a person is seen to be kept alive artificially in a condition where, otherwise, they cannot survive; sometimes for some sort of ulterior motive. The term was used frequently in the investigation into the death of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna in 1994.

Lazarus sign

The Lazarus sign or Lazarus reflex is a reflex movement in brain-dead or brainstem failure patients, which causes them to briefly raise their arms and drop them crossed on their chests (in a position similar to some Egyptian mummies). The phenomenon is named after the Biblical figure Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raised from the dead in the Gospel of John.


Megadeath (or megacorpse) is one million human deaths, usually caused by a nuclear explosion. The term was used by scientists and thinkers who strategized likely outcomes of all-out nuclear warfare.


Mortality is the state of being mortal, or susceptible to death; the opposite of immortality.

Mortality may also refer to:

Fish mortality, a parameter used in fisheries population dynamics to account for the loss of fish in a fish stock through death

Mortality (book), a 2012 collection of essays by Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens

Mortality (computability theory), a property of a Turing machine if it halts when run on any starting configuration

Mortality rate, a measure for the rate at which deaths occur in a given population

Mortality/differential attrition, an error in the internal validity of a scientific study


A necronym (from the Greek words νεκρός, nekros, "dead" and ὄνομα ónoma, "name") is a reference to, or name of, a person who has died. Many cultures have taboos and traditions associated with referring to such a person. These vary from the extreme of never again speaking the person's real name, often using some circumlocution instead, to the opposite extreme of commemorating it incessantly by naming other things or people after the deceased.

For instance, in some cultures it is common for a newborn child to receive the name (a necronym) of a relative who has recently died, while in others to reuse such a name would be considered extremely inappropriate or even forbidden. While this varies from culture to culture, the use of necronyms is quite common.


Necrophobia is a specific phobia which is the irrational fear of dead things (e.g., corpses) as well as things associated with death (e.g., coffins, tombstones, funerals, cemeteries). With all types of emotions, obsession with death becomes evident in both fascination and objectification. In a cultural sense, necrophobia may also be used to mean a fear of the dead by a cultural group, e.g., a belief that the spirits of the dead will return to haunt the living.Symptoms include: shortness of breath, rapid breathing, irregular heartbeat, sweating, dry mouth and shaking, feeling sick and uneasy, psychological instability, and an altogether feeling of dread and trepidation. The sufferer may feel this phobia all the time. The sufferer may also experience this sensation when something triggers the fear, like a close encounter with a dead animal or the funeral of a loved one or friend. The fear may have developed when a person witnessed a death, or was forced to attend a funeral as a child. Some people experience this after viewing frightening media.The fear can manifest itself as a serious condition. Treatment options include medication and therapy.The word necrophobia is derived from the Greek nekros (νεκρός) for "corpse" and the Greek phobos (φόβος) for "fear".

Pallor mortis

Pallor mortis (Latin: pallor "paleness", mortis "of death"), the first stage of death, is an after-death paleness that occurs in those with light/white skin.

Post-mortem interval

Post-mortem interval (PMI) is the time that has elapsed since a person has died. If the time in question is not known, a number of medical/scientific techniques are used to determine it. This also can refer to the stage of decomposition of the body.


Salience or saliency may refer to:

Incentive salience, a motivational "wanting" attribute given by the brain

Mortality salience, a product of the terror management theory in social psychology

Salience (language), the property of being noticeable or important

Salience (neuroscience), the perceptual quality by which an observable thing stands out relative to its environment

Social salience, in social psychology, a set of reasons which draw an observer's attention toward a particular object

Terror management theory

Terror management theory (TMT) is both a social and evolutionary psychology theory originally proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski and codified in their book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (2015). It proposes that a basic psychological conflict results from having a self-preservation instinct while realizing that death is inevitable and to some extent unpredictable. This conflict produces terror, and the terror is then managed by embracing cultural beliefs, or symbolic systems that act to counter biological reality with more durable forms of meaning and value.The most obvious examples of cultural values that assuage death anxiety 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, values of national identity, posterity, cultural perspectives on sex, and human superiority over animals have been linked to death concerns. 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 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.

The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes

The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes is a 1971 American experimental film by Stan Brakhage. Its title is based on the literal translation of the term autopsy. The film documented the highly graphic autopsy procedures used by forensic pathologists, such as the removal of organs and the embalming process.The film is part of Brakhage's "Pittsburgh trilogy", a trio of documentary films Brakhage made about the city's institutions in 1971. The other two films are entitled Eyes and Deus Ex. These documentaries are about the police force and a hospital, respectively. American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum referred to The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes as "one of the most direct confrontations with death ever recorded on film."


A vanitas is a symbolic work of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death. Best-known are vanitas still lifes, a common genre in Netherlandish art of the 16th and 17th centuries; they have also been created at other times and in other media and genres.

In medicine
After death

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