Dr. Sheldon Solomon on Terror Management Theory: Exclusive Interview
The following transcript contains part of an exclusive interview with Dr. Lisa Firestone and Dr. Sheldon Solomon.
Sheldon Solomon talks about how Terror Management Theory began.
….we were egghead researchers trying to understand why people couldn’t get along with other people who didn’t share their beliefs about reality. And then we stumbled onto Ernest Becker’s work and, you know, his concept of death denial being central to understanding human behavior struck us as critically important. You know, in our gut, we are like, “Yeah. We’re onto something.” But our work was never framed in developmental terms. So we just said, “Oh, people don’t like death. And in their efforts to deny that, a lot of unsavory things result.” And, you know, the two people that were most influential to us, well, one is a guy named Phil Shaver, who’s an attachment theory guy and the other is Bob Firestone because right about the same time, nobody in academic psychology took us very seriously. Except for Phil and Bob, who each pulled us aside. Your dad wrote to us and we used to go to conferences with purple ditto sheets because no one would publish our work.
And I honestly don’t know – I will ask Bob when I see him next, you know – how he found one of these. But he wrote to us in mid – it had to be 1986 or ’87 and he was like, “You guys keep doing what you’re doing.” And we were like, “Wow! This is very good because at the same time, Phil Shaver, who’s more of a traditional academic, not that Bob is not, but here’s this guy in the academy who said, “This is very important work, but with all due respect, people do not descend from the maternal shoot explicitly aware either of themselves or of their mortality. So you have a shit ton – if you’ll pardon the expression – of theoretical work to do. Because even if we grant everything that you’re saying about people, you’ve not given us any insight about how those things come to be, psycho dynamically speaking.” And, you know, so it was Bob Firestone and attachment theory, which I think are quite compatible, that really gave us the developmental piece of the picture. And that was both exciting as well as uplifting because we come from Becker’s point of view. Bob’s work converges on the same ideas — you know, from the existential psychodynamic perspective that we were blithely ignorant of. It’s really nothing to be proud of. But we got PhD’s in experimental psychology unscathed by knowledge.
So we were too busy designing experiments to actually have acquired the kind of intellectual background to give our theoretical ideas disciplinary flesh. And then to find besides Bob’s work theoretically, we were always particularly, well, speaking for myself, I found the clinical studies to be especially revealing, and to complement what we do exquisitely. Because we’re proud, or I’m proud of the work that we do and I think the experiments are important – necessary, but not sufficient. But when the clinicians weigh in and they come to exactly the same conclusions, I was like, “Wow.” You know, they have the Eastern saying that all roads can get you to the truth. But here was a good example of that being the case. I think that was pretty neat. So that was it. Everyone else was, “This is stupid. Don’t do it.” And you know, the two folks that encouraged us and I’m very grateful to this day.
Order a DVD of Dr. Sheldon Solomon’s full interview with PsychAlive, “Creating Meaning“
In this DVD, Dr. Sheldon Solomon addresses a variety of topics concerning how human beings can create meaningful lives in the face of death. In a lively and candid style, Dr. Solomon discusses the development of Terror Management Theory, the ways in which people form defenses against death anxiety and the concept of life affirming death awareness, arguing that we can “accept the reality of the human condition and parlay that into bringing out the best in us. ” He also addresses the societal effects of death awareness, including the social nature of human beings, the role of education and government, and the elements that make up an ideal society. Ultimately, Dr. Solomon advocates that people treat one another humanely and with a greater emphasis on compassion.
Dr. Sheldon Solomon is a psychologist and the Ross Professor for Interdisciplinary Studies at Skidmore College. He is best known for developing Terror Management Theory, along with Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, which is concerned with how humans deal with their own sense of mortality. Dr. Solomon is the author or co-author of more than 100 articles and several books, including In the Wake of 9-11: The Psychology of Terror. He’s been featured in several films and TV documentaries as well as countless radio interviews.