How Self Esteem Protects Us From Our Fear of Mortality

Self esteem has become something that increases in importance the more studies we do centering around the subject. We’ve seen the effects of self esteem in so many aspects of our lives which is why we’re still learning more about it everyday. As a result, there are a lot of different theories about why self esteem is so important to our wellbeing as humans. One of those theories is called the Terror Management Theory. This theory predicts that we feel threatened by mortality and because of this, we tend to defend our worldview in response to being aware of our mortality. In order to protect ourselves from that threat, we use self esteem. It’s important to remember that most people are not aware that they think this way. When this way of thinking is challenged, it can cause a lot of anxiety. Our self esteem is a buffer for this anxiety so if we have high self esteem, the theory suggests we would feel less obligated to defend our worldview. 

Quite a few studies have been done to prove the Terror Management Theory. Harmon-Jones et. al. tested this theory by seeing the effects of self esteem on mortality salience. In the experiment, they measured self esteem and then had the participants either write about their mortality (experimental group) or write about a neutral topic (control group). They looked for instances where the participants supported their worldview or argued against it. In this experiment, they found that participants that scored higher on self esteem defended their worldview a lot less than those who rated neutral on self esteem. (Harmon-Jones et al., 1997) 

In terms of neuroscience, this theory suggests that something in our brains seems to cause us to become less defensive in response to high self esteem. In 2014, Klackl et al did a study to figure out how this occurs. In order to observe the effects of mortality and self esteem on the brain, they used neuroimaging techniques to mainly focus on neural activity in the insula. The insula is a part of the brain that has been proven to be involved in human awareness of the present moment and our emotions. (Damasio, 1997) (Craig, 2009) The results in the study showed the participants in the high self esteem group had decreased activity in the insula to death-related stimuli when compared to the activity of the insula when exposed to generally unpleasant stimuli that was not related to death. Specifically, the right anterior insula was less active in high self esteem participants for death related sentences when compared to sentences that were unpleasant but not death related. They also found significant results for more activation of the ventrolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in low self esteem patients when they heard death-related sentences. The ventrolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex are parts of the prefrontal cortex known for emotional regulation. (Sturm et. al., 2016)

Top view diagram of the brain indicating where the insula is located.

The lack of activity in the insula can be linked to lack of awareness of your emotions, which in turn can be explained by the self esteem buffering. In addition, the increase in activity in the ventrolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in low self esteem participants can be explained to be connected to a need for emotional regulation. If they’re becoming defensive of their worldview, they’re most likely a little upset and frustrated, which would explain the increase in activity. 

The TMT theory correlates with the results from this study. They both agree in the sense that high self-esteem people are less affected by the fear of mortality and the need to protect our worldview as a result of that fear. It’s very interesting to see fear play a role in the activation and lack thereof in different brain areas. We usually see fear and self esteem as strictly surface level characteristics of human nature but the more we learn about both, the more we understand that these behaviors and feelings are connected to something in the brain.

Citations 

Craig AD. How do you feel–now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009 Jan;10(1):59-70. doi: 10.1038/nrn2555. PMID: 19096369. 

Damasio AR. The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 1996 Oct 29;351(1346):1413-20. doi: 10.1098/rstb.1996.0125. PMID: 8941953. 

Harmon-Jones, E., Simon, L., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & McGregor, H. (1997). Terror management theory and self-esteem: Evidence that increased self-esteem reduced mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(1), 24–36. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.72.1.24

Klackl, J., Jonas, E., & Kronbichler, M. (2014). Existential neuroscience: Self-esteem moderates neuronal responses to mortality-related stimuli. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(11), 1754–1761. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nst167

Virginia E. Sturm, Claudia M. Haase, Robert W. Levenson, Chapter 22 – Emotional Dysfunction in Psychopathology and Neuropathology: Neural and Genetic Pathways, Editor(s): Thomas Lehner, Bruce L. Miller, Matthew W. State, Genomics, Circuits, and Pathways in Clinical Neuropsychiatry, Academic Press, 2016, Pages 345-364, ISBN 9780128001059, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-800105-9.00022-6.

7 thoughts on “How Self Esteem Protects Us From Our Fear of Mortality

  1. Although I am familiar with the theoretical concepts of Terror Management Theory, I had not known the correlating neuroscience. It was interesting to read about the insula and how big of a role it plays in TMT. A question that I still have is about the self-esteem piece; is there a factor of the brian that correlates with higher self-esteem, and does this impact the insula?

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  2. Hi Yewande,

    I learned a lot in this blog post. As with LIV’s comment above, I was not at all familiar with TMT (Terror Management Theory), but think that it is an interesting concept. I would absolutely like to learn more about the self-esteem piece. Mainly, the biological components vs the environmental components. Self-esteem is a huge part of our society and it has changed so much since the introduction of the internet, social media, and Instagram. I look forward to talking more about this with you in the future.

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  3. Be careful of the use of “prove” in scientific writing. Most experiments that assess the role of certain brain regions in behavior are correlational and don’t forget that correlational does not mean causation.

    Overall, very interesting article! I’d like a more detailed explanation of TMT because I did not completely understand the procedures and how they defended their world views.

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  4. Overall I found this topic incredibly interesting. I had not heard of terror management theory, and I want to look into it more. Not only does this article touch on a topic I find interesting, but I also found your title and writing style captivating. I had never thought of self-esteem at the neurological level and what purpose it serves for us in our daily lives; I usually tend to think of things like self-esteem and ego as intangible concepts.

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  5. This blog is very interesting and inspiring! I was not familiar with TMT before, but the idea of it seems convincing and expands my understanding of how strong self-esteem could affect us in various aspects. It is also exciting to see the neurobiology basis of conceptual fear of mortality. The only thing I’m still confused about in this article is the ‘worldview’ in Harmon-Jones’s experiment. To be more specific, this word is too broad and how it is related to mortality in the experiment is unclear. Nonetheless, generally, this blog is excellent!

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  6. This is such a cool topic! I find it interesting that evidence of the argument that self-esteem protects our view of mortality is directly reflected in neuroimaging techniques in the presence of death-related stimuli. I am interested in considering how this application of Terror Management Theory might develop or evolve as society places more and more emphasis on mental health and managing self-esteem!

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  7. Reading your article was excellent. Before reading, I wasn’t familiar with Terror Management Theory about self-esteem. It is quite a fascinating approach to understanding self-esteem. The more one feels threatened in their mortality, the more they strive to defend their worldview, and the lower the self-esteem and vice versa focus on the core theory of existence—survival. From our current understanding, all life forms have been naturally selective to want to survive or persist through time. In a way, it all relates to fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of feeling belittled and insignificant. However, If we are secure with ourselves, none of the outworld validation will be needed. What would that look like?

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