A step ahead: How a positive evaluation of one's own death can reduce discrimination more effectively

Posted by melstiller



How can people take more profound actions against discrimination? New research findings could pave the way for equity - beyond the category of gender.


This question was raised by Mel Stiller and Andrés Di Masso from the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Barcelona. The researchers found that a more positive evaluation of one's own mortality was associated with less gender discrimination. Although their results require further research, they start to indicate possibilities for profound intervention.


How does a more positive evaluation of one's own death lead to less discrimination?

Terror management theory (Greenberg et al., 1986) assumes that people run the risk of being overwhelmed by the fear of their own death due to their ability to think about the future well in advance. In order to anticipate this fear, they share and defend their worldviews. In this way, a symbolic part of their selves remains in the minds of those who remain once the person physically dies. However, worldviews include stereotypes as the basis for discrimination (Wheeler & Petty, 2001).


Basing on the original version of Terror Management Theory, diverse research groups found an increased use of sexist, racist and ableist assumptions after participants in experiments were reminded of their own mortality („mortality salience“; e. g., Hirschberger et al., 2010; Hoyt et al., 2011; Lewis & David, 2019; Niesta et al., 2008; Roylance et al., 2017; Schimel et al., 1999).


Nevertheless, recent years' studies can hardly replicate the effect of mortality salience on stereotypes (Klein et al., 2022). One the one hand, this could be due to the fact that the effect may only occur under yet unexplained circumstances, or due to the effect being less strong than originally assumed (Rodríguez-Ferreiro et al., 2019).


On the other hand, the lack of replicability of the results could also be due to the fact that terror management theory assumes that death is automatically negative when people are reminded of it. Wong's (2008) extension of theory states that people can also accept death, and that the strategy of death acceptance versus denial depends on whether we evaluate death as positive (e.g. to create meaning) or (despite rational acceptance as emotionally) negative.


Stiller's dissertation (2021) hardly found any effect of mortality salience or death acceptance on stereotypes about sex, gender or sexual orientation. Instead, a more positive death valence predicted fewer stereotypes about gender, sexual identity and sexual orientation in a reaction time experiment. Theoretically, these results should also apply, for example, to racist or ableist stereotypes. Future research shall show whether they do. However, the results also raised the question of why people automatically evaluate death as more positive or negative. In other words...


What is death valence anyway?

Is this about morbid desires or is suicide even encouraged? - No, death valence primarily refersto the evaluation of death as positive or negative for one's own life and person. But what does it mean? How does a good or bad evaluation of one's own mortality come about? Is death not automatically bad for us?


Both basic literature on a "good death" and new meta-analyses suggest that people express specific needs in the face of death (Järviö et al., 2022; Kübler-Ross, 1969; Lormans et al., 2021):


  1. meaning: They want to find something that gives their life a purpose, e.g., a task that satisfies the person or that contributes to posterity.

  2. hope: They need a positive expectation for the future; for themselves and for those they leave behind. Perhaps they can consciously enjoy the last everyday things in life, finish one last task, see a good friend again and know that their family will be financially secure.

  3. belonging: They want to feel connected to other people at eye level instead of being isolated from those who are important to them.

  4. agency: They need the choice to shape their final time instead of feeling helpless. This includes the freedom to adapt to their mortality in their own way.

  5. dignity: They want to be treated as valuable human beings even in the last moments of their lives, rather than as anonymous subjects to machines and medicine.


If these needs are met, it is easier for people to leave in peace. What is more, a positive evaluation of our mortality might even serve as the basis for more peaceful societies (Boyd et al., 2017; Kübler-Ross, 1969; Maj & Kossowska, 2016; Wong, 2008).


[Reframing] the meaning of death may prove a welcome antidote [to the consequences of death denial], both personally and in terms of community well-being.” - Spellman (2014, p. 210)


Whether we can expect our final needs to be met depends on how our cultures deal with death (Stiller, 2023). The US historian Spellman (2014) describes how our death evaluation has changed over the course of history: Nomads as of 200,000 years ago possibly buried their dead rather out of social custom than out of a deeper meaning, e.g., the Hadza in Tanzania or North American hunting groups.


This neutral view changed with sedentarization as a result of climate change, ca. 10,000 BC: Settlements clustered around common ancestors who were buried in or near the house. The Israeli Natufians, for example, kept the half-mummified heads of their deceased in their houses, while the inhabitants of Turkish Çatalhöyük buried the bodies of their dead under the hearth or bed of their homes. Due to hunger and illness, death was part of people's everyday lives. A strong belief in an afterlife emerged from sedentarization. Afterlives were often imagined as positive (heaven) or negative (hell).


In the times of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th-19th century, the power of religion over death was replaced by medical science (medicines, vaccinations, disinfection during surgical procedures). People were now living longer than just 30 years. At the same time, death became less visible due to longer life expectancy and to the confinement of illness and death to hospitals or care facilities.


Despite the 20th century hospice movement, death is still perceived as negative or even taboo in the Global North (Spellman, 2014). Although death has become more present through virtual news from around the world, our emotional approach to it has not improved. We avoid confronting our mortality and others' through virtual immortality projects such as digital memorials or chatbots that mimic the deceased; especially since Covid-19 (Galvão et al., 2021).


Thus, our evaluation of death also changes over time within the same culture. Presumably, people evaluate death as positive if they can culturally expect their death needs to be met (Stiller, 2023). Were they able to achieve what their life goals? Will their loved ones be provided for or will they have to spend decades paying off the deceased's debts? Does the system allow for a dignified, socially embedded farewell? Does it give the dying person choice? Or does the system favor medicine, bureaucracy, money and social norms over the mortal person's needs?


If we want to change death valence in order to use it against discrimination, then we must first feel close to death. Whether or not we feel close to death possibly depends on whether we regard death as something distant and abstract - in which case we tend to reject it - or whether we can imagine our death in concrete terms (Cozzolino et al., 2004). Only the emotional proximity to our death enables us to perceive the contrast between our death needs and the cultural possibilities to fulfill those needs. We do not actually have to die to feel close to death.


Previous research has shown that older, terminally ill or traumatized people, people in death-row or those with near-death experiences obtain a more positive view on death as they feel closer to it (Goranson et al., 2017; Järviö et al., 2022; Kübler-Ross, 1969; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Nevertheless, even young, healthy people can emotionally approach their mortality and thus gain a more positive death valence: For example, Lekes et al. (2022) describe how an experiential and thus emotional approach to death in young university students resulted in greater personal well-being, more focus on personal growth, close relationships and on contributions to their communities. Students were told about international funeral rites, took part in role-plays and explored the role of death in their own biographies. The students stated that they found more meaning in their lives after experiential death education. Beyond the individual level, Boyd et al. (2017) also found that a greater openness to one's own death was associated with less tendencies to discriminate.


If all of us would make an all-out effort to contemplate our own death, to deal with our

anxieties ... perhaps there could be less destructiveness around us. ... [We] have to ... learn to face this tragic but inevitable happening … [and] make it a habit to think about [it] occasionally ... before we encounter it in our own life.” Kübler-Ross (1969, p. 11, 20)


In summary, a positive or negative view on death arises from the automated expectation of whether our death needs will be met when the time comes. This expectation depends on culture. In order to perceive our death needs and compare them with our cultural possibilities to fulfill them, we can approach our mortality emotionally. The emotional closeness to death then allows us to open up to "others" and to recognize when we are compensating for our unfulfilled death needs by discriminating against others.


How can we use this?
Despite theoretical and initial empirical evidence, experimental research on positive death valence and discrimination is still in its infancy. On the other hand, laboratory conditions – in no matter how many experiments - are no substitute for real interventions. To have an impact in the relevant communities, activists need the courage to put this knowledge into practice through trial and error. In order to prevent unwanted trauma, collaborations with psychologists are recommended. Above all, however, it is important to incorporate death valence knowledge into protest culture to avoid future discrimination.


This is a possible intervention structure that accounts for the above mentioned scientific indications:

  • Part 1: experiential death education in a group of interested people: What attitudes and feelings arise when one's own mortality comes emotionally closer? What are the underlying needs and how do they effect our anxiety management, e.g., towards others? An emotion-centered death education could prevent reactance against other world views and promote openness to the recognition of discrimination.

  • Part 2: explaining general mechanisms of discrimination and the emotional management of own privilege, followed by specific examples such as sexism, racism and ableism, in exchange with the group's experiences
    Part 3: emotional transfer: When and how do we compensate for the expectation of unfulfilled death needs by stereotyping and discriminating against others? What resources are available to better deal with mortality and otherness? How can the results from the group be used for broader social change?


May there be an active exchange between theory and practice!




To avoid a long list of references, please feel free to find the mentioned ones in here:

Stiller, M. (2021). Queer terror management: Theory, test and indicators towards a psychosocial intervention in gender stereotypes via death attitudes. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Barcelona]. http://diposit.ub.edu/dspace/handle/- 2445/184055

Stiller, M. (2023). The constitution of death valence as a key to intervene in social discrimination. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Advance online publication.https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167823120561