Death Isn't as Awful as We Imagine

New research into what it feels like to be dying

Posted Jun 29, 2017

When it comes to predicting how we will feel in the future, we are not particularly good at it. This happens with positive events. People who win the lottery for instance think that the experience will bring them a lot more joy long term than it does. It also happens with negative events. When we imagine something bad happening to us, we tend to think it will have longer, more devastating, consequences than it typically does.

Recent research headed by psychologists at the University of North Carolina tested the possibility that we imagine that dying will be far more negative than it actually is for people who are dying.

These researchers analyzed blogs posts written by people with terminal cancer, and the last words of death row inmates. They then had people write statements imagining that they were dying. The results indicated that people wrote more negatively about death when imagining that they were dying than the individuals who were actually dying.

So, when if you fear dying, or if it brings you a tremendous amount of sorrow, this work suggests that it probably won't be as horrific as you imagine.

There are some limitations of this research, however.

It isn't clear to what extent the last words of death row inmates and the blogs written by the terminally ill reflect the experiences of more typical individuals. Most people do not blog about death, for instance, when they are dying and these might be people who are coping better with their terminal illness than the average person. Death row is also a very unusual death experience, so it is unclear how much that matches up to the death concerns of the everyday person.

Additionally, we don't know how much of the positivity in these public statements are simply self-presentation. If I were about to die, and writing a very public statement about it, I would certainly be motivated to come across as less fearful and sorrowful than I am.

Even granting some wiggle room for these limitations, it is still very likely that when death comes, we will face it with more peace than we imagine. Humans are, after all, quite resilient.

References

Goranson, A., Ritter, R.S., Waytz, A., Norton, M.I., & Gray, K. (2017). Death is unexpectedly positive. Psychological Science. DOI: 0956797617701186

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 131-134.