Are We Really All Driven by the Fear of Death? An Interview with Psychologist Sheldon Solomon

Deathstyle seventh_seal chess with death

This evening I told my six-year-old-twins the bad news: we have to put down our aging tortoiseshell cat Scully. Part of what made the task emotionally difficult was not just that they love the cat but that they live in a culture where they are shielded from death. If they’d been living in the nineteenth century they probably would have already seen a dead body, maybe laid out in someone’s home or at a neighbourhood funeral. But not today, where our contact with death, and conversations about it, are remarkably limited. Death is a subject as taboo as sex was during the Victorian era, even though issues such as euthanasia and palliative care are creating an element of public discussion.

The reality is that we live in a culture of death denial. Moreover, while few people would openly admit that their lives are driven by a fear of death, the nightmare of our mortality haunts us like nothing else. As Woody Allen put it, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’

The good news is that a fascinating new book has recently been published that offers compelling insights into the issues. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by a trio of US psychologists – Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski – is a path-breaking study that brings together over two decades of research into our responses to death. The originality of their work is to provide the empirical evidence that the fear of death is the hidden motive behind almost everything we do, from our career ambitions to the desire to have children.

I was lucky enough to meet one of the authors, Sheldon Solomon, Professor of Social Psychology at Skidmore College, and ask him some of the questions about death that were on my own mind. Here is what he had to say.

RK: Many people might doubt that fundamental aspects of their everyday life – such as the desire for self-esteem or a well-paid job – are actually driven by an underlying fear of death. What do you think is the most convincing evidence that this is actually the case? 

SS: Many people are sceptical of our claim that fear of death underlies a substantial proportion of their behaviour on the grounds that they do not think about death all that much. However, according to Ernest Becker and terror management theory, death is so terrifying that we repress it by embracing cultural worldviews that give us a sense that we are valuable participants in a meaningful universe (i.e. self-esteem).

Literally hundreds of experiments have shown that when people are reminded of their mortality (e.g. by answering questions about their thoughts and feelings about death; being interviewed in front of a funeral parlour; or having the word “death” flashed on a computer screen for 28 milliseconds, so fast that they don’t see anything), they respond by behaving in ways that bolster faith in their cultural worldviews and fortifying their self-esteem. For example, after being reminded of death: Christians have more favourable reactions to fellow Christians and more unfavourable impressions of Jews; Germans sit closer to fellow Germans and further away from Turks; materialistic people become more interested in owning high status luxury items like fancy cars and watches; people who derive self-esteem from smoking cigarettes say they are more likely to smoke; and, people who derive self-esteem from their personal appearance report that they intend to spend more time in a tanning booth and use less powerful sunscreen at the beach.

RK: I was fascinated when you told me that your readings of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death and Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy actually prompted you to leave your post as a young Professor of psychology and go on the road for a year. Could you say something about what you did, why you did it, and what you learned?

SS: I was profoundly discombobulated by Becker’s claim that our personal identity as well as our cultural allegiances are constructed during socialization (long before we are aware that this is the case) to mitigate death anxiety. Was this true for me too? Was I genuinely interested in being a professor and an experimental social psychologist, or was I also just a culturally constructed meat puppet assuaging my own death anxiety?

To find out, I took a leave of absence and trundled around the country doing odd jobs – mostly day labour, construction work, and working in kitchens as a dishwasher and a cook. I met some wonderful people and this work renewed my appreciation of excellence in every domain that I encountered it in. I also realized that in American society we do not value or reward (in terms of monetary compensation) people who do great work in positions that we all rely on but generally take for granted – such as day labour, construction work, and working in kitchens.

However, throughout my year of meandering (which I still value a great deal in retrospect), I still found myself genuinely interested in studying the role of death in life, reading the work of great thinkers like Becker, Otto Rank, and Irvin Yalom, and designing and conducting studies to delineate how death anxiety influences our attitudes and behaviour – and this ultimately prompted me to return to my post in Psychology.

The Worm at the CoreRK: What do you think is the relationship between empathy and how we think about death?

This is a good question that to my knowledge has not yet been examined theoretically or empirically, except for one study showing that empathetic people become more forgiving after pondering their own mortality. My sense is that empathy is critical for reducing defensive reactions to intimations of mortality (e.g. disparaging people who are different) as well as for helping us come to terms with our own mortality.

RK: How do you think about the concept of carpe diem – seize the day – and what, in your view, is its relationship to the idea of death?

Death anxiety is natural for those who love life. Premature involuntary death is always unspeakably tragic. And although humans can and should accept their own mortality with grace and humility, it doesn’t follow from this that we should all ‘go gentle into that good night’. Rather, let’s follow Étienne Pivert de Sénancourt’s 1804 advice: ‘Man is perishable. That may be; but let us perish resisting, and, if nothingness is what awaits us, let us act in such a way that it would not be a just fate.’

So what then does ‘the good life’ entail? How does one live well with death? The ancients generally agreed that living well is not the same as living long, and often bemoaned people’s unfortunate tendency to squander their existence. As the Roman philosopher Seneca observed in On the Shortness of Life: ‘So it is – the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly. I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.”  For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.’

Almost two thousand years later, Abraham Lincoln put the same idea in a nut shell: ‘And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.’ To make the most of life, the Roman poet Horace counselled to ‘Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future’ (Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero), a sentiment echoed by biblical exhortations to ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ A common, but unfortunate, expression of this stance towards life is the narcissistic pursuit of superficial pleasures combined with a cavalier disregard for fellow humans, like the “What – Me Worry?’ mentality of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, or the more recent ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ anthem of an unreflective self-indulgent life-style characterized by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as ‘tranquilization by the trivial’.

We’re pretty sure that isn’t what Horace or the authors of the Bible had in mind, so much as, to borrow a phrase from Bob Marley, ‘If you know what life is worth, you will find yours here on earth.’ Be sublimely aware and profoundly appreciative of being alive, live every day in earnest, respectful of the past and devoted to the future, but absorbed in and enthralled by the present.  And heed the ancient maxim memento mori, ‘remember that you are mortal’.  According to Martin Heidegger and like-minded existentialists, a meaningful ‘authentic existence’ can only be achieved by those who maintain a constant awareness and acceptance of their finitude.

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, is published by Allen Lane in the UK and Random House in the US.

Roman Krznaric’s books, including Empathy and The Wonderbox, have been published in over twenty languages. He is founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum.

Posted in belief, deathstyle, interviews, psychology | 1 Comment

Will you join my campaign against Facebook’s ‘EMPATHY’ button?

Facebook Empathy button

Mark Zuckerberg has just announced Facebook’s plan to introduce an ’empathy’ button alongside the familiar ‘like’ icon which is used 4.5 billion times per day.

In this article in the Guardian, I argue that it’s a big mistake. It would represent the triumph of slacktivism over activism, and leave us emotionally inarticulate and illiterate.

Please join my campaign against the ’empathy’ button by sharing this article, especially on Facebook.

Roman Krznaric is the author of Empathy (Penguin Random House), and founder of the Empathy Museum.

Image: 2paragraphs

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There’s a Giant Shoe Box on the River Thames: It’s the Empathy Museum!


This weekend in London the world’s first Empathy Museum opened its doors. It’s a moment I’ve been dreaming about for years. Seeing it actually come to life has been completely thrilling, even overwhelming.

There has been a constant stream of visitors to our launch exhibit, A Mile in My Shoes, a giant shoe box on the banks of the River Thames by Vauxhall Bridge. I’ve seen a 75-year-old woman scooting along the riverside on roller skates while listening to the story of a roller derby champion. I’ve seen curious men slip on the size 12 stilettos of a bearded drag queen. I noticed a woman almost in tears listening to the narrative of someone who lost members of her family in a tragic accident, while I was told by others that the very same story made them feel empowered and more fully alive. Children giggled as they ran along in the size 1 gym shoes of a local schoolgirl and discovered how she saw the world. Read More »

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Two Days Left: Support the World’s First Empathy Museum

‘Sewerman’ Gari Pattison tells his story at the Empathy Museum

We’ve got just two days left to fund the launch of the Empathy Museum. If you’ve been pondering giving support, or haven’t yet got around to it, now is the time! We’ve nearly hit £10,000 – just a little more and we’ll be there.


Our launch exhibit, A Mile in My Shoes, is going to be fabulous. You’ll step into the shoes of people like ‘sewerman’ Gari Pattison, as well as others including a refugee, a sea captain, a drag queen and a dog walker. I’ve just been listening to one extraordinary contribution from a man sentenced to 14 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Just imagine having the chance to walk in his actual shoes as you listen to his story.

I realise that there are a lot of good causes out there that you could be contributing to, so why give to the Empathy Museum?

  • It’s absolutely unique. It’s the world’s first exhibition dedicated specifically to promoting empathic understanding, and based on the latest neuroscience and psychology research.
  • This is an urgent issue. Empathy is on the decline: we see the spectre of rising racism around immigration issues, an escalation of online abuse, and a plague of hyperindividualism fuelled by an overdose of consumer culture.
  • Be part of a global movement. We’re taking the Empathy Museum around the world, starting with the UK and Australia, and we’ve had invitations to bring it to cities including Paris, Beirut and Calgary. This is going to be big.
  • Your contribution will make a tangible difference. All donations will go directly to fund our exhibit – helping us collect more stories and shoes for our shoe shop and take the Empathy Museum into communities where it’s really needed.

Most crowd-funding campaigns receive the majority of their donations in the last 48 hours. So please prove the statistics right by making your donation here.

Thank you, and I hope you can make it to our opening exhibit in September.


Roman Krznaric, Founder, Empathy Museum


Photo of Gari Pattison by Rachel Simpson

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Just 8 Days Left to Fund the Empathy Museum Launch


Are you ready to step into Timberlina’s shoes?

We’ve got just 8 days left to fund the launch of the Empathy Museum and would love your help to make it happen!

Our inaugural exhibition, A Mile in My Shoes, will open on the Thames riverside in London on September 4 as part of the Totally Thames festival. A Mile in My Shoes is an empathy shoe shop where visitors are invited to walk in the actual shoes of another person whilst being immersed in an audio narrative of their life.

Our brilliant team have been hard at work finalising the designs. The empathy shoe shop already includes the skates of a Roller Derby Champion, the dress-shoes of a Chess Grand Master, the waders of Crayfish Bob and the sky-high heels of bearded drag queen Timberlina – and every pair is accompanied by extraordinary, moving and surprising stories. We’re counting down the days until we open our doors and we really need your help to complete the finishing touches, and give us the budget we need to take the exhibit on the road to a town near you.

Our crowd funding campaign has been gathering pace and our generous supporters have so far helped us raise 45% of what we need – now we’ve got just a week left to meet our budget so I’m writing to ask for your help. Many of you have generously pledged already. If you haven’t we’d be incredibly grateful for your support with a donation big or small.

Thank you and I hope to see you in the shoe shop in September!

Roman Krznaric

Founder, Empathy Museum

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Support the launch of the Empathy Museum!

The big day is coming: on September 4 the Empathy Museum launches its inaugural exhibition, A Mile in My Shoes, on the Thames riverside in London as part of the Totally Thames festival.

Please do come along to our opening exhibit if you can. It will be open 4th-27th September, Wednesday to Sunday, 12noon to 6pm at Riverside Gardens near Vauxhall Bridge.

A Mile in My Shoes – Crowd Funding Campaign

A Mile in My Shoes is an empathy shoe shop, where visitors are invited to walk in the actual shoes of another person, ranging from a paediatric brain surgeon and a market trader to a refugee and a chess grand master. While walking along for a mile in someone else’s shoes you are immersed in an audio narrative of their life.

To help support the launch we have just started a crowd funding campaign at Indiegogo to raise the additional £15,000 we need to house the exhibit in a specially designed giant shoebox, and then tour it.

I would be hugely grateful if you took a few minutes to visit the campaign page here and make a pledge.

Please also share the campaign page link on twitter, facebook and other channels. Sample tweet: Join the Empathy Revolution and support the launch of the world’s first @empathymuseum

The Empathy Museum has already captured the public imagination. It’s been featured in the media around the world, and we’ve received invitations to take it everywhere from Paris to Beirut. Our first international exhibit will be in Australia in 2016.

The museum is based on ideas in my book Empathy. Its director is the acclaimed artist and curator Clare Patey.

Your support will help make the Empathy Museum a reality and launch it onto a global stage. Please join us.

Best wishes

Roman Krznaric

Founder, The Empathy Museum


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New video: Is the idea of a soulmate a myth?

Probably the greatest myth of romantic love is that somewhere, out there in the amorous ether, is our missing other half – our soulmate.

This entertaining new video based on my book How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life – which is released in paperback in the US this week – explores how the idea of the soulmate emerged out of the history of love, and how we should think about it today. Are we raising our expectations too high in our search for romance, hoping that a single person can provide us with all the love we need – being not only our best friend, but also our lifelong companion and the best sex we ever had? And who invented the term ‘soulmate’ in 1822?

The new video is something of a companion piece to my article on the Six Varieties of Love known to the Ancient Greeks.

If you haven’t read it, How Should We Live? (titled The Wonderbox in the UK) explores the lessons we can learn from history about the art of living, and looks at topics ranging from love and work to creativity, travel and death. It’s inspired by a wonderful quote from Goethe: ‘He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth’.

Posted in emotions, love, videos | 1 Comment

Welcome to the Empathy Wars (or Why Peter Singer is Wrong)

Peter Singer and Roman Krznaric at Blackwell's Bookshop Oxford June 2015The empathy critics are on the rampage. Led by the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, the anti-empathy brigade claim that empathy is a weak or even distorting force in moral life and public affairs. The most recent convert is Peter Singer, perhaps the world’s most influential moral philosopher and author of classic texts such as Animal Liberation. In a recent public conversation I had with him as part of the Empathy Festival at Blackwell’s Bookshop Oxford (see photo), he argued that ethics should be led by rational thinking rather than empathy (of course, I didn’t agree).

In response to Singer’s claims, I have written an article at Open Democracy, called Welcome to the Empathy Wars. It makes the case that critics like Bloom and Singer are fundamentally mistaken, particularly because they fail to recognise the crucial role that cognitive empathy plays in establishing human rights and social justice.

Do have a look at the article, which is based on my book Empathy, and make up your own mind. Whose side are you in the Empathy Wars?


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Ever Been to an Empathy Shoe Shop?

EM Empathy Shoe ShopIt’s official: the Empathy Museum will be opening its doors in September 2015, as part of Totally Thames, the huge and vibrant annual festival taking place along London’s waterfront.

Personally, this is a big day for me. I’ve been dreaming about the Empathy Museum for years, and wrote about it in my book Empathy. I’m thrilled that it’s now becoming a reality.

As discussed in this feature article in today’s Independent newspaper, one of the main exhibits will be ‘A Mile in My Shoes’, which takes the form of a unique empathy shoe shop. One of the shop assistants will fit you out with a pair of shoes belonging to someone from a different background – maybe a Syrian refugee or an Old Etonian investment banker – and you will be able to literally walk a mile in their shoes while listening to a recording of them talking about their life, so you really get to see the world from their perspective.

We’ll also be running events such as Human Libraries, where instead of borrowing a book you borrow a person for conversation.

The Empathy Museum will later travel to other London venues then around the country in a bespoke eco bus, visiting schools and galleries, town centres and supermarket car parks, cliff tops and office blocks.

It will also launch online and be touring internationally. In February 2016, the Empathy Museum is going to Australia, appearing as a centrepiece of the Perth International Arts Festival.

The museum is being masterminded by its Director, the internationally renowned artist and curator Clare Patey.

To keep up with the Empathy Museum’s development and tour programme, sign up here. And please spread the word!


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What does it take to leave the Ku Klux Klan?

It’s probably the most extraordinary story of the power of empathy I’ve ever come across.

In 1971, the former Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis had an experience that blew away his prejudices and assumptions about African Americans. In this new 4-minute video produced by Renegade Inc, I reveal how and why it happened.

It’s especially relevant in the wake of the recent racially-motivated church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

If anybody ever tells you that empathy is a touchy-feely ‘soft skill’ that has little chance of changing society, just tell them about C.P. Ellis.

This video is based on ideas in my book Empathy, which has just been released in paperback by Penguin Random House.

CP Ellis Ann Atwater 1971 edit

Ku Klux Klansman CP Ellis working alongside his great adversary, the civil rights activist Ann Atwater, in 1971.


Posted in conversation, empathy, empathy stories, ethics, history | Leave a comment
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