College of Science and Health Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

Spring 6-12-2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Ralph Erber, PhD

Second Advisor

Verena Graupmann, PhD

Third Advisor

Kimberly Quinn, PhD


In this dissertation, I examine the relative contribution to worldview defense (i.e., upholding one’s cultural worldviews) provided by the thoughts of one’s death and perceptions of curbed close relationships.

The need to belong, to form meaningful and strong ties with others, is what many social psychologists believe to be one of the most fundamental and strongest motivations that humans possess (Baumeister, 2012; Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Kenrick, Griskevicius, Neuberg, & Schaller, 2010; Tomasello, 2014). The human brain is “hard-wired” to be around others (Beckes & Coan, 2011). In fact, large social group sizes of humans’ evolutionary past may have contributed to the large brain that modern humans possess today—a large brain with high cognitive ability is required to solve complex social problems such as attributing others’ mental states (Dunbar, 1998, 2003, 2009). Terror Management Theory (Greenberg & Arndt, 2012; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986), however, suggests that humans’ high cognitive ability also allows for knowledge that death will inevitably arrive one day. This knowledge creates a state of “paralyzing” anxiety and drives what Terror Management Theorists believe to be the most fundamental of human motives: avoiding death. To overcome this anxiety, persons turn to their cultural worldviews to boost their self-esteem and assuage the existential crisis evoked by the thought of death.

Although Terror Management Theory has received an impressive array of empirical support since its introduction, it has left one particular and important question unaddressed: why is it that humans fear death? Rather, Terror Management Theory simply assumes that humans do so. One possible reason behind this fear reflects the human need to belong. Being ostracized or excluded by others may be one of the most painful experiences humans may face, physically and cognitively. For example, being ostracized can decrease one’s of meaning (Stillman, Baumeister, Lambert, Crescioni, DeWall, & Fincham, 2009). Distress following social exclusion may even equate to experiencing physical pain (e.g., DeWall & Baumeister, 2006; MacDonald & Leary, 2005). The negative effects of ostracism may extend to simply observing others being excluded (Wesselman, Bagg, & Williams, 2009). Collectively, the physical, emotional, and cognitive distress following ostracism is strong enough for some to call ostracism “social death” (Case & Williams, 2004; Williams, 2007a).

In this dissertation, I propose that “social” and “actual” death may not be too different. More specifically, death may perhaps be conceptualized as permanent social exclusion, or an everlasting threat to the fundamental need to belong (Leary, 2004). Upholding one’s cultural worldviews, as consistently documented in Terror Management Theory research (Greenberg & Arndt, 2012), may reflect persons attempting a re-establishment of social connectedness and to assuage their threatened need to belong.

I tested these ideas in five studies. The results of a qualitative analysis of persons’ stream of consciousness on their own death revealed social themes. A second survey study suggested that social loss is indeed a dimension of death-related fears. In Experiments 1 and 3, I replicated the worldview defense effects of mortality salience (MS; i.e., more negative evaluations of anti-American essays). Still, I was unable to find evidence for increased death thought accessibility following MS (Experiment 2). Experiment 1 revealed that thinking about both the loss of relationships and the end of the world (where all humans cease to be) lead to worldview defense. Experiment 2 suggested that belongingness hindered the accessibility of death-related thoughts. Finally, a mediation analysis in Experiment 3 suggested that the link between MS and worldview defense may be grounded in belongingness.

I discuss these findings in the framework of theories reflecting humans’ strong need to belong, and consider possible alternative explanations grounded in TMT.

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