“The Worm at the Core” uses studies conducted by its three psychologist authors to explore the theory that the unconscious fear of death motivates much of human activity. Co-author Sheldon Solomon appears Monday, Jan. 11, at Town Hall Seattle.
Given the inevitability of death and its power to render human life meaningless, why read a book about this existential quandary, the authors of such a book ask.
Furthermore, they ask, why write it?
“The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life,” by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski (Random House, 274 pp., $28), was written by three professors of psychology who have set out to show that death — and more accurately the foreknowledge and fear of it — influence all human behavior. How humans manage the terror of death has “raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the twin towers in Manhattan,” according to the authors.
The co-author of “The Worm at the Core” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5, available at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.
They have written a book to try to prove it — and one worth reading.
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For them, the recognition of the power of death in life comes from Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who died in Burnaby, B.C., in 1974, two months before his book “The Denial of Death” won the Pulitzer Prize. Becker argued that unconscious efforts to deny and transcend death are behind much of human activity.
Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski wrote their book to explain the empirical evidence they have developed in the past 30 years to support Becker’s theory. Mostly their proof consists of experiments where one group of people was given some reminder of death — anything from a slightly morbid question on a survey to being shown a grisly movie — and a control group received a neutral substitute. Then the groups were asked to perform some task and the differences were measured.
Judges asked to describe their emotions about their own deaths were more harsh in sentencings than the neutral group. People reminded of death were more susceptible to charismatic political candidates. Give Americans a death reminder and they are more likely to apply stereotypes to those different from themselves.
All these experiments involve the ways humans have devised to keep death at bay, constructing “cultural world views” that give a sense of meaning and then operating successfully within those constructs to provide self-esteem, another key to believing that life is worth living.
Explaining each experiment to show another aspect of “terror-management theory” makes the book somewhat repetitious. But whether you believe the experiments offer definitive proof of how the fear of death shapes human behavior, there is insight here about how and why we live our lives.
The book’s language is straightforward and even light at times, making a weighty subject approachable.
The three psychologists’ exploration delves into religion, sex, mental illness and our conscious and unconscious defenses deployed to ward off the fear of death. That includes efforts, often desperate and perhaps silly, to achieve immortality through means both literal (for $80,000 you can have your head frozen for a chance at a second time around) and symbolic (my name will be remembered as long as this review is read).
Will the book make life meaningful or stay death’s sting? Maybe not, but there’s no question it will shine light on why we do the things we do.