Is Dying Our Greatest Fear?

Are you afraid of death?

Posted Jun 23, 2017

There are several psychological theories that place fear of dying as our greatest fear and a huge motivating force.  For example, Ernest Becker suggests that fear of death is what motivates us to try leave a lasting legacy behind.  According to Becker, much of mental illness involves issues related to dying.

Recent research, however, suggests that fear of dying may not be the huge, disruptive force that many people think it is.  In fact, fear of dying seems to be more of a concern for younger people—who are in “probability” terms, quite distant from death—as opposed to older people. 

Recent research sought to test this hypothesis that death would be viewed as less negative and more positive for people facing imminent death than it is for those who are farther away from death. 

In one study, the blog posts of terminally ill patients (cancer and ALS patients) were analyzed and compared to healthy participants who were asked to imagine that they were terminally ill and were instructed to blog about it.  The blogs were analyzed for negative and positive content.  As predicted, the posts of terminally ill patients were more positive and less negative in tone than those who were healthy but imagining they were terminally ill.  Importantly, the posts of terminally ill patients became more positive as death approached.

A second study examined the last words of death-row inmates and compared these with poetry written by death-row inmates.  Consistent with the results of the previous study, the inmates last words contained significantly more positive affect than the comparison writings.

What does this suggest?  Perhaps our fear of death is greatest when it is quite distant, but many of us come to terms with our imminent death as it gets closer.  I am experiencing this in my own life and in my family right now.  My teenage daughter has expressed a significant fear that she will die in an accident or in a terror incident.  My father, who is in his late 80s, has told me that he does not fear death, and has come to terms with it.  Me?  I’m in between, but definitely not experiencing the anxiety that my young daughter feels.

So, is dying our greatest fear?  For most of us, probably not, but it is something with which we need to cope, and there are important individual differences.

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Goranson, A., Ritter, R.S., Waytz, A., Norton, M.I., & Gray, K. (2017).  Dying is Unexpectedly Positive.  Psychological Science, online June 1, 2017.