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What Terror Management Theory Teaches Us About Christmas? A Social Psychology Podcast Episode.

For the very last podcast episode of 2022, I want to look at terror management theory and how can we apply this theory to the holiday season. Since whilst this episode comes out the day after Christmas, it is still a great time to look at this seasonal topic, even if most of us are still recovering from the day before. I don’t drink but I know I will still be recovering from all the amazing food of the day. Therefore, if you enjoy social psychology, terror management theory and the holiday season then you will love today’s episode.

Today’s psychology podcast episode has been sponsored by Social Psychology: A Guide To Social and Cultural Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.

How Terror Management Theory Connects To Christmas?

The holidays and the Christmas season is a wonderful time of year filled with singing, presents and most importantly food. Oh yeah, and friends and family. I love Christmas because it is always such a fun time of year and it is so nice to have a little downtime towards the end of the year when we can all come together give presents, spend time together and see our friends and family.

However, we also need to remember that Christmas can be a strange time of year for all of us too, because the family and friends we’ve lost. I know that is always a very minor theme at our Christmas day celebrations because my paternal grandad comes to us every Christmas now only because my grandma died in April 2020 (thankfully it wasn’t COVID related) and the same goes for my great-aunt. She only comes to us every Christmas now because her husband died of dementia in March 2021, so there is always a very, very minor theme of loss at our Christmases.

And I’m hardly alone in this. I’m sure that some of you listeners experience the same each Christmas.

Leading us onto Terror Management Theory, which is a branch of psychology research that was developed in 2015 with Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski and Sheldon Solomon writing their book The Worm at the Core which is all about death anxiety. With the book proposing that death anxiety drives people to adopt a worldview that both defends as well as defends them from facing reality. Since the theory proposes that when thoughts about death are in our awareness, we attempt to remove these thoughts by suppressing them, engaging in behaviour that reduces our sense of vulnerability or we deny the threat exists.

In addition, Terror Management Theory suggests that a lot of our own life decisions are, in reality, distractions to help us deal with our own death anxiety. In other words, the concerns and worries that a person has about their own death, someone else’s or the process of dying itself.

And I realise now that when I thought of doing this podcast episode, I thought it would be really cheery but now I realise how much I’m talking about death. But I promise you it will get more cheery soon.

Anyway, life choices like our careers, rituals and our routines are all ways that allow us to give meaning and purpose to our lives and this allows us to believe that we play an important role in the world. Yet according to the theory, these are only distractions from our death anxiety and the truth is that we live in a meaningless way.

Now, personally, I can sort of see where this is coming from because in its most basic elements it is correct. Since in the grand scheme of things, the human life span is a mere flare of light. When in reality, everyone can make small meaningful differences in the world and I choose to believe that this does make an impact over time.

For example, when Nicola Tesla created the light bulb, sure he had a massive impact on history and the world we lived in but he wasn’t alone. There had to be other small influences, impacts and other factors that led him to have the massive and hardly meaningless impact of giving us light. The same goes for the creators of Apple, Google and Amazon. These companies and their workers are changed the retail, technology and other landscapes forever and their impacts will echo throughout the generations because of their meaningful impact, just like the people behind the Industrial Revolution.

Equally to put this in more an everyday context, a charity might do useful and amazing and meaningful work that could lead to great things. For example, if a homeless charity helps a young person to get off the streets, go to university and they become a doctor that saves life. The charity did a meaningful thing but the charity is useless without its donor (even the 50p donors).

So what I’m trying to say is that even the smallest actions can have truly massive impacts in the true, so yes some actions are meaningless, but I think to say all actions are meaningless is simply foolish.

Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory

However, terror management theory isn’t a new idea at all because Ernest Becker wrote back in 1973, in his book The Denial of Death, that most human actions are very ignorant to our own mortality as supported with the following quote: "It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours." Therefore, it could be argued that everything we do in life from our search for wealth, power and influence, are actually (and I am talking very deep down here) all driven by our need to feel invincibility and this in turn helps to protect us from our fears about death.

How Terror Management Theory Links With Christmas?

Surprisingly enough, we can still connect Christmas to terror management theory because the rituals, consumerism and routines of the Christmas holiday season can definitely serve this function, but only if we let it.

However, even though, this podcast episode might have come across as bleak and maybe a little depressing, it actually isn’t meant to because there’s a critical takeaway that all of us can use in our Christmas season. It is the takeaway that this Christmas and whenever there are special occasions in our lives, if we approach them a deeper and bigger appreciation of everyone and everything we have in our lives. Then this can serve as a merry reminder that Christmas and the holiday season is a time of year to savour life, what really matters to us and turn our thoughts to the people that are already living with the loss of loved ones and friends.

Christmas really is a magical time of year filled with presents, family and friends and amazing food, but that is why Christmas is such a powerful time of year. Because it really is the time of year to make ourselves feel better, strong and certainly a lot less fearful about what will happen to all of us in the end.

I really hope you enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.

If you want to learn more, please check out:

Social Psychology: A Guide To Social and Cultural Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.

Have a great day.

Social Psychology References

Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Penguin.

Think Like a Therapist. Six Life-changing Insights for Leading a Good Life By Stephen Joseph

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