New research suggests that people who don’t believe in the existence of a literal afterlife are more likely to strive for symbolic immortality by fusing their identity with their nation. The findings, which appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shed light on the ways that people psychologically manage the terror of death.
“At first, we really just set out to test what seemed at the time an intuitive and somewhat simple hypothesis derived from terror management theory: If cultures are or contain our immortality projects, people should be motivated to perceive them as long-lasting, especially when death is salient,” said study author Andy Scott of the University of Alberta.
“As is often the case with psychological research, it turned out to be more complicated and interesting than we expected. The project ended up being instead about the interplay between incongruent immortality projects.”
An initial study of 90 Canadian undergraduate students found evidence that people who strongly identified with their nation increased how long they believed their nation would last after being reminded of death.
Half of the participants were randomly assigned to write about their own death, while the other half wrote about experiencing dental pain. After completing some other psychological assessments, the participants then indicated how long they believed Canada would continue to exist on a continuous scale that ranged from “0 years” to “10,000 or more years.”
Canadians who strongly identified with their nation increased their cultural longevity estimates by 2,382 years on average after being reminded of their own death.
But when the researchers tried to replicate the findings in a second study with another 116 Canadian undergraduate students, they found no evidence that reminders of death were associated national longevity. “This failure prompted exploratory analyses that ultimately led to the critical addition of afterlife belief as a moderator variable in the subsequent studies,” the researchers explained.
In four subsequent studies, which included 1,012 American citizens in total, Scott and his colleagues found that the link between reminders of death and beliefs about the longevity of one’s nation was dependent on two factors: highly identifying with American culture and not holding strong beliefs in the existence of an afterlife.
In addition, the researchers found that, among those who did not believe in an afterlife, the perceived longevity of the United States was associated with decreased levels of death anxiety.
“The main takeaway in my view is that we all seem to have the same need to overcome the finality of death but we meet this need in many different and interesting ways,” Scott told PsyPost. “Moreover, it appears that people who have a route to literal immortality (a belief in an afterlife) have less motivation to pursue and maintain secular-symbolic avenues to immortality, possibly because they already feel like they have all the immortality they need.”
“Another (not incompatible) reason this might occur is that many religions teach their adherents that earthly pursuits (i.e., things that will grant you symbolic immortality) don’t align with living a religious, sin free life,” Scott explained.
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“We only looked at this phenomenon in a North American context and this could (and should, according to the theory) matter in interesting ways; we have little idea what would happen if we ran similar studies in cultures with less separation of church and state, or in cultures with less of a focus on national pride, for example,” Scott said.
“There is also important work to be done in figuring out whether it is better for ourselves and those around us to strongly cling to one immortality project or to curate a multipronged approach to living on after death. Another related question that has been taken up recently by several labs is what the transition from religious to secular systems of belief involves and how people and societies manage existential concerns during this transition period.”
The new research was based on terror management theory, which holds that attempts to manage feelings evoked by the awareness of our own mortality is a strong motivator behind a variety of beliefs and behaviors.
“I always appreciate when people point to stuff I can read to learn more about a topic, so I’ll end by recommending a couple of books for anyone who found this research intriguing,” Scott added. “If you’re interested in the varieties and history of immortality projects, the book Immortality by Stephen Cave (2012) is a great place to start. If you want to learn more about terror management theory, check out The Worm at the Core by the originators of the theory (Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski; 2015).”
The study, “Long live A(me)rica! An examination of the interplay between nationalistic-symbolic immortality striving and belief in life after death“, was authored by Andy Scott, Jeff Schimel, and Michael Sharp.