A new study published online in the Personality and Social Psychology Review aims to break the terror management theory, which states that having thoughts about death can lead to harmful behavior. According to this new research, thinking about death doesn't automatically have negative effects.
Lead author Kenneth Vail from the University of Missouri extensively reviewed several studies that found positive possibilities for people who think about death. He found a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2008, which observed how likely it would be for people to help others if they had a heightened sense of death.
The experiment took place in two locations: a cemetery and a place a block away from it. To find out how many people would be compelled to act on their values, researchers planted an actor who would drop her notebook by accident in both locations. Participants who were in the cemetery were 40 percent more likely to extend a helping hand than those who weren’t.
Vail also discovered other experiments, which present evidence that thinking about death can have a positive effect on a person's psyche. In one study, for example, researchers found that people with a heightened sense of death were much more willing to set aside their religious differences when the importance of keeping the peace was made known to them through religious texts.
Vail also found results that show that thinking about death can influence people to make better choices in more recent studies. That is, they might be more inclined to stop smoking and start exercising. Vail said he hoped his study would encourage others "to turn attention and research efforts toward better understanding of how the motivations triggered by death awareness can actually improve people's lives, rather than how it can cause malady and social strife."
(Photo by Angus via Flickr Creative Commons)