Might there be more than a worm at the core? Mortality salience in consumer culture

Stephanie O'Donohoe, Darach Turley

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Although all creatures are mortal, humans alone are aware of their own vulnerability and impending mortality, with this awareness thought to engender such terror that philosopher William James termed it “the worm at the core” of human existence (Solomon et al. 2015). Terror Management Theory (TMT) posits that one central purpose of any culture – including consumer culture – is to manage and minimize the terror and anxiety humans experience whenever they are reminded of or contemplate their mortality. TMT draws much of its inspiration from Ernst Becker’s denial of death thesis, which draws in turn on the primacy of the self-preservation instinct in the works of Freud and Darwin (Mandel and Heine 1989). According to TMT, a cultural system serves as buffer between its adherents and the paralyzing awareness of their impending death through two coping mechanisms (Rosenblatt et al. 1989). First, culture provides a shared symbolic context that imbues the universe with order, meaning, stability, and permanence, enabling individuals to understand who they are, how they fit in, and what is expected of them. When reminded of their mortality, individuals should, on this basis, reaffirm their allegiance to this cultural system and favourably evaluate those who personify and defend its values. Secondly, according to TMT, culture counters the deathly dread by promising individuals literal or symbolic immortality if they live according to its values, since this confers a sense of self-esteem. On this basis, increasing a person’s mortality salience should result in increased resolve to adhere to these standards. Conversely, those enjoying high self-esteem levels should experience lower anxiety when exposed to death-related matters.

Over the past quarter century, TMT theorists have developed a body of experimental research where mortality salience is typically manipulated to assess its impact on a range of dependent variables, variables that increasingly involve consumption-related constructs. For example, heightened mortality salience has been linked to increased materialism and the ‘urge to splurge’ (Kasser & Sheldon 2000). Indeed, George W. Bush exhorted his fellow Americans, unsettled by the terror of the 9/11 attacks, ‘to go out shopping’ (Arndt et al. 2004). Increased mortality salience has also been shown to engender materialistic thoughts (Rindfleisch & Burroughs 2004; Wang et al. 2014), greater satisfaction with expanded consumption choices (Ferraro & Agrawal 2007) and greater participation in physical exercise (Arndt et al. 2004).

Arguably, mortality salience reaches new heights – without any need for experimental manipulation - following a terminal diagnosis. Accounts of impending demise penned by those with terminal illness, however, suggest that TMT is not the only, or most important framing, of mortality salience, and that the role of consumption, and consumer culture, may be more nuanced than TMT indicates. In this paper, we argue that Heidegger’s (1962) concept of being-towards-death is at least as convincing a lens on the role of consumer culture and consumption in coming to terms with the finite nature of human existence. For Heidegger, to exist at all is to be ahead of oneself, face choices, and look towards the future, all shaping one’s identity. Death is an omnipresent, vivifying threat, infusing and ultimately completing being-there. Drawing on several memoirs of illness and dying, our analysis focuses on the existential challenges and everyday experiences of being-towards-death, highlighting how consumer culture is intertwined with what has been described as “the human practice of dying” (Empson, in Lubbock 2013).


Arndt, Jamie, Sheldon Solomon, Tim Kasser, and Kennon M. Sheldon (2004). The urge to splurge: A terror management account of materialism and consumer behavior,” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14, 3: 198-212
Ferraro, Rosellina, and Nidhi Agrawal (2007). Mortality salience, control, and choice", in Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 34, eds. Gavan Fitzsimons and Vicki Morwitz, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 599-600
Heidegger, Martin (1962 [1927]) Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E.S. Robinson, New York: Harper & RowKasser, Tim, and Kennon M. Sheldon (2000). Of wealth and death: materialism, mortality salience, and consumption behavior, Psychological Science, 11, 4:348-351
Lubbock, Tom (2012). Until further notice, I am alive. London: GrantaMandel, Naomi and Steven J. Heine (1999). Terror management and marketing: he who dies with the most toys wins,” in Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott (eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, vol.26, Association for Consumer Research, Provo, UT: 527-532
Pyszczynski, Tom, Greenberg, Jeff, and Solomon Sheldon (1997). Why do we need what we need? a terror management perspective on the roots of human social motivation, Psychological Inquiry, 8, 1: 1-20
Rindfleisch, Aric, and James E. Burroughs (2004). Terrifying thoughts, terrible materialism? Contemplations on a terror management account of materialism and consumer behavior,” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14, 3: 219-224
Rosenblatt, Abram, Greenberg, Jeff, Solomon, Sheldon, Pyszczynski, Tom, and Lyon Deborah (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: the effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 4: 681-690
Solomon, Sheldon, Greenberg, Jeff, and Pyszczynski, Tom (2015) The worm at the core: on the role of death in life. New York: Allen Lane
Wang, Zhi, Feifei Huang, Jiajia Meng, and Rober S. Wyer (2014). Does mortality salience always lead to materialism? the interplay between terror management theory and just world hypothesis", in Advances in Consumer Research vol. 42, eds. June Cotte and Stacy Wood, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research: 816-816.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2016
Event9th Workshop on Interpretive Consumer Research - University of Stockholm, Stockholm, Sweden
Duration: 27 Apr 201728 Apr 2017


Conference9th Workshop on Interpretive Consumer Research

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • death and consumption
  • terror management theory
  • Heidegger


Dive into the research topics of 'Might there be more than a worm at the core? Mortality salience in consumer culture'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this