The Upside To Your Fear Of Death

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  • Sports psychologists everywhere must be kicking themselves right about now, because two doctoral psychology students just figured out how to boost athletic performance by 30% in a literal instant – wear a T-shirt with a skull on it while you explain the rules. Yep, seriously. So could thanatophobia (that’s the official term for death anxiety) really boost your motivation, speed and performance – on and off the field?

    The Evidence

    Colin Zestcott and Uri Lifshin at the University of Arizona devised two experiments to test how fear of death affects performance. In the first, they had student basketball players play two games of basketball. In between the two games, each player filled out a questionnaire. For half of them, this included questions which prompted them to consider their own mortality, e.g. “Please describe the thoughts and emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you”. The others answered questions about playing basketball. Incredibly, the performance of the players who had been prompted to think about their own deaths improved by 40%, whilst the performance of the other group remained unchanged.

    In a second experiment, participants took part in a timed basket-shooting challenge. The researcher explaining the challenge wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a large skull and the word ‘death’, covered up by a zipped jacket for half of those taking part. Those who saw the motif scored 30% more points than those who did not. They also seemed to exert more effort, running faster and making more attempts.

    The Theory

    Why? Well, according to Terror Management Theory, being reminded of our own mortality activates psychological defence mechanisms which motivate us to bolster our self-esteem. “Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you’re not just a sack of meat,” Lifshin explains. “Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.” For these participants, he suggests, that thing is basketball. For others, it might be another hobby, work, or simply being part of something bigger that gives our lives meaning.

    “We keep our terror under control by feeling like we are more than just animals doomed to obliteration, but that we are special beings with a soul and that we will transcend our own deaths either literally or symbolically,” says Jeff Greenberg, one of the original proponents of Terror Management Theory. “Reminders of mortality bolster our sense that we are valuable parts of a meaningful world.” This explains the so-called Scrooge Effect, according to Greenberg and his colleagues, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski.

    The ‘Scrooge Effect’

    Yep, your fear of death could make you a better person, as well as better at basketball. Pyszczynski discovered that people who answered a survey about giving to charity whilst standing in front of a funeral home were more positive about charitable donations – and more likely to say that kindness and generosity were important to them – than those interviewed 150 feet away. Just like Scrooge, for whom an encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Future and seeing his own name on a gravestone “makes him shift toward becoming a more kind and giving person,” in fact.

    So could scrawling “You are going to die” on a discreetly positioned Post-it get you powering through a dull afternoon at the office? Well, it’s got to be worth a try…

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