My research over the last decade or so has examined the psychological function of cultural worldviews and self-esteem (i.e., the belief that one is meeting cultural standards of value and is therefore a valuable contributor to a meaningful view of reality). Based on the work of existential theorists such as Otto Rank, Norman O. Brown, Soren Kierkegaard, Gregory Zilboorg, and most notably, Ernest Becker (1971; 1973; 1975), my colleagues and I have proposed that these two psychological structures play an important role in managing and controlling existentially-based fear, specifically, thoughts and concerns about human mortality. In support of this idea we have conducted a number of different studies over the last decade or so showing that brief (even subliminal) reminders of death (vs. other aversive topics) increase people's favorability toward ideas that support (vs. oppose) their worldview and motivate people to behave in ways that maximize self-esteem. Specifically, we have found that after being reminded of death research participants endorse cultural stereotypes more strongly, bolster their identification with important groups, and defend their religious and political beliefs with greater conviction. In a recent series of studies, we found that reminders of death can also affect how people process information. For example, after being asked to briefly ponder their own demise (vs. a painful trip to the dentist), research participants performed much better on a difficult test of reading comprehension, but only if the reading material affirmed their religious beliefs. If the reading material disconfirmed a core component of their beliefs, the death reminder had an adverse effect on their performance. Apparently, the need to defend one's death transcending beliefs can enhance one's motivation and ability to comprehend worldview affirming ideas, but the same defensive motivation can also cloud one's ability to comprehend worldview opposing ideas. This research in particular has implications for cultural bias in testing situations, and may explain why people from very different religious, political, and cultural backgrounds have a hard time understanding one another. The broader, and darker implication of this research is that many forms of prejudice and aggression observed throughout human history may stem, at least in part, from people's need to defend their anxiety buffering views of self and world.
On a more positive note, however, we have also found that if people embrace cultural values of kindness and tolerance, they show less hostility toward outgroup members in response to death reminders. Building on this idea we have recently assessed the possibility that people deal with the problem of death differently depending on their stage of life. Erikson (1963) proposed that as people enter into old age (and consequently get closer to death), they enter a stage called "generativity", in which they become concerned with passing on knowledge and taking care of future generations. Elderly individuals might therefore deal with existential concerns by adhering more closely to prosocial values. Indeed, in some recent work we have found that after being reminded of death, older (vs. younger) adults become less punitive toward violators of cultural standards and more interested in passing on knowledge, volunteering, mentoring, and generally giving back to society.
Schimel, J., Simon, L., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Waxmonsky, J., & Arndt, J. (1999). Stereotypes and terror management: Evidence that mortality salience enhances stereotypic thinking and preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 905-926.
Dechesne, M., Greenberg, J., Arndt, J., Schimel, J., & Solomon, S. (2000). Terror management and the vicissitudes of sports fan affiliation: The effects of mortality salience on fan identification and optimism. European Journal of Social Psychology, 30, 813-835.
Greenberg, J., Schimel, J., & Martens, A. (2001). Sympathy for the Devil: Evidence that reminding Whites of their mortality promotes more favorable reactions to White racists. Motivation and Emotion, 25, 113-133.
Arndt, J., Greenberg, J., Schimel, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (2002). To belong or not to belong, that is the question: Mortality salience and identification with gender and ethnicity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 26-43.
Jonas, E., Schimel, J., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2002). The Scrooge effect: Evidence that mortality salience increases prosocial attitudes and behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1342-1353.
Schimel, J., Wohl, M., & Williams, T. (2006). Terror management and trait empathy: Evidence that mortality salience promotes reactions of forgiveness among people with high (vs. low) trait empathy. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 217-227.
Schimel, J., Landau, M., & Hayes, J. (2008). Self-esteem: A human solution to the problem of death. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1218-1234.
Williams, T. J., Schimel, J. & Hayes, J., & Faucher, E. H. (in press). The Effects of Existential Threat on Reading Comprehension of Worldview Consistent and Inconsistent Information. European Journal of Social Psychology.
Jeff Schimel's website