MU analysis says thinking about death could be good

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | 12:33 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — It may sound morbid, but thinking about death could be a good thing, according to a new analysis from MU.

The paper "When Death is Good for Life: Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management" was published this month in Personality and Social Psychology Review, a journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.

Ken Vail, lead author and doctoral student in psychology, and Jamie Arndt, professor of psychological sciences at MU, reviewed past studies on thoughts of death for the paper. The review found that in the right context, thoughts of death can make people more helpful and spur them to make healthy changes, like exercising, using sunscreen or quitting cigarettes.

"Once we started developing this study, we were surprised how much research showed positive outcomes from awareness of mortality," Arndt said in a statement.

Arndt said some other studies have indicated people become violent when they think about a catastrophe that jeopardizes their group. But another study showed those who were reminded of death and thought about a global threat instead were more likely to associate themselves with peace and humanity.

"The basic idea is when folks have a heightened awareness of mortality, they defend and protect their relevant culture group," Vail said.

In another study Vail and Arndt analyzed, people walking near cemeteries were more likely to help others than those who weren't subconsciously reminded of death. And another example showed that after the Oklahoma City bombing, divorce rates went down in nearby counties.

But Vail said the findings don't mean people need to sit and ponder their death; there are references to death all around, like news of capital punishment or debates about federal health care, he said.

"The most important thing this paper does is remind researchers and clinicians and the public that awareness of mortality isn't some bleak force of destruction," Vail said.

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