You can muddle along in life without ever really wondering why watching Criminal Minds, CBS’s gruesome, nihilistic series on FBI profilers, makes you want to log onto your laptop and hit ADD TO CART for those really cute wedge sandals at Target. Or you can be like University of Rochester cultural psychologist Ilan Dar-Nimrod and conduct a study that proves viewing carnage on TV heightens the viewer’s materialistic cravings for advertised goods. Why, you may wonder, does death provoke buying? Because you don’t want to die, even though you know you’re going to, and buying those sandals lets you think about something other than the fact that one of these days, you absolutely, positively will—if only for a little while.
Turns out Dar-Nimrod was exploring an aspect of something called Terror Management Theory, which postulates that we are what we are because we’re a-feared of dying. TMT’s founding father, anthropologist Ernest Becker, came to believe that all human action results from our attempts to circumvent the inevitability of death. Where Freud saw penises, Becker saw coffins. According to Terror Management Theory, our great religions, our legal systems, our cultural beliefs—all just ways of sticking our fingers in our ears and shouting “La-la-la-la-la!” in the face of the Grim Reaper.
In Dar-Nimrod’s experiment, participants were shown clips from TV programs that featured death scenes and clips that didn’t portray death. The clips were followed up by ads for products; the appeal of the products proved greater when their appearance was preceded by demise. Taco Bell and Budweiser and Honda are going to have a field day with this. So long, Parks and Recreation and Community! Hello, more series about serial killers, not that there aren’t already a plethora of those. Now that there’s proof death is advertising’s magic bullet, TV is likely to get a lot more bloody, fast.
I’d like to think human behavior is more than one big unconscious sidestepping of mortality, but TMT makes sense, in a morbid way. I haven’t smoked in more than a decade, but I still have mixed feelings about those FDA-mandated cigarette warning labels whose legality an appeals court agreed to consider last week—the ones with the big, graphic photos of cancerous lungs and corpses and stained, broken teeth. Turns out a quarter of all Americans share my qualms about those warnings. (Fifty-four percent approve of the campaign.) Hell, we’re all going to die of something; living a nicotine-free life won’t forestall that. As First Amendment scholar David Hudson put it, the labels go “beyond, I think, what is necessary. It’s just so in your face, so graphic, these images—it’s just simply too much.”
TMT researchers are in the business of exploring that fine line between fear and acceptance. Show social drinkers ads that talk about drunk driving leading to death, and they’re turned off; show them ads that talk about the social ostracism and shame that result from a drunk-driving arrest, and they’re more likely to pay heed. They don’t want to think about dying; none of us do.
Terror Management Theory has applications for the mess that is American health care, too. Think about it. We spend billions of dollars on expensive, invasive medical treatments for patients who are doomed—whose cancers are beyond remission, whose diseases are fatal—because we’re so unwilling to look death in the eye and accept its inevitability. TMT researchers say this isn’t our fault; it isn’t a choice we make. The rejection of death is primal. It lies at the center of human existence and of evolution. It’s what makes our world go round.
It’s also what makes us so scared of “death panels” that might make decisions based on science and practicality, rather than on emotion. If Terror Management Theory is real, health-care reform is never gonna happen.