Why is it so hard to get folks to do estate planning? The tendency to put off this important part of life can be attributed to the Terror Management Theory proposed by Dr. Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death.
Dr. Becker’s landmark treatise on cultural anthropology and social science looks at how the unconscious denial of mortality profoundly influences human behavior. Becker said, “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
The human psyche contains a juxtaposition of the desire for self preservation combined with the uniquely human awareness of the inevitability of our own deaths. Knowing this inevitability holds the potential for overwhelming terror.
Humans, like other animals, want to stay alive and reproduce. As an animal that can use language and symbols to convey meaning with words and letters, humans are the only animal that projects thoughts forward into the future, reflects on the past, and wonders why we are here.
We use our intellect and self-esteem to control our world. We develop worldviews that give meaning to our lives and allow us to mentally transcend death. There have been approximately 600 studies conducted around the world over the past 25 years on the influence of the Terror Management Theory.
“Bringing death to mind changes the way people think,” said Dr. Tom Pyszczynski, one of the leading scholars of Dr. Ernest Becker’s work and a professor at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs. “The fact of death plays a very important role in life – some not so obvious and more impactful.”
This idea of transcending death comes in two forms – literal and symbolic. Literal immortality comes to us through religious/spiritual concepts: a soul, heaven, reincarnation, collective consciousness and other forms of afterlife. Symbolic immortality comes through one’s legacy: offspring, valued achievements, awards, monuments, and identification with nations, movements, professions and such.
To stave off the terror of death, we “keep the faith” in a worldview of order, meaning, permanence and standards of significance. The belief that we are meeting standards of significance is one’s self-esteem.
Reminders of mortality, known as Mortality Salience, intensify efforts to bolster and defend one’s worldview and self-esteem. In other words, making someone aware that they are going to die will make them cling ever more tightly to their worldview. They become more of what they already are – such as loving and thoughtful or arrogant and argumentative.
Preparing wills and doing estate planning is a big reminder of mortality. It is no surprise there’s a strong tendency to avoid end-of-life planning. Research suggests by getting clients to affirm their beliefs, values, self-esteem and relationships, this avoidance may be reduced.
“By getting people to think about what they value, who they love, and what they do well, it may increase their ability to plan,” said Pyszczynski.
Taking concrete values-based steps to deal with mortality and estate issues can help clients move beyond the denial of death.
Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®, brings a light touch to serious subjects as a speaker who uses humor and funny films to attract people to discuss mortality, end-of-life, estate and funeral planning issues. She is Certified in Thanatology: Death, Dying and Bereavement by the Association for Death Education and Counseling. A pioneering Death Café hostess, she is author of the award-winning book and host of the TV and radio shows A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. Gail is an ongoing contributor to the AAEPA blog. Her website is http://agoodgoodbye.com/
Academy Guest Blogger
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
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Phone: (800) 846-1555
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