Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Eastern Philosophy Eases Death Anxiety

• September 24, 2012 • 4:00 AM

New research finds East Asians are more likely than Westerners to react to reminders of their mortality with a renewed commitment to enjoy life.

Two guys walk into a bar. The bartender greets them with the sad news that a mutual acquaintance—a man of their age and social class—recently keeled over after suffering a massive heart attack.

Slightly shaken, they sit down and order drinks. But do they do so with a wistful smile, or a sullen grimace? Do they spend their evening sharing plans for the future, or trading snarky remarks until their unease morphs into anger targeted at some group they don’t like?

The answer, according to newly published research, may depend upon whether the watering hole is in Shanghai or Cheyenne. It turns out that East Asians and Westerners react very differently to reminders of our mortality—a finding that may point the way out of a destructive dynamic.

This study provides compelling evidence that the Eastern response to death is a renewed commitment to enjoying life. Awakened to the availability of this option, there’s no reason Westerners can’t adopt such an attitude, and reap the personal and societal benefits.

“The thought of death makes many people become more narrow-minded and nationalistic,” noted Harvard University psychologist Christine Ma-Kellams. “But less-defensive methods of coping with death are definitely possible, and some cultures make it easier than others to tap into these alternative ways.”

Ma-Kellams is both a cross-cultural psychologist and an expert in terror management theory, which examines the ways death anxiety impacts our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Several decades of TMT research has found reminders of our inevitable demise tend to evoke enthusiastic adherence to our religious and/or political beliefs, since these are the mechanisms that promise us either literal or symbolic immortality.

It’s a profound (if not universally accepted) theory, but most of its research has been done in the Western world. Ma-Kellams, who was born in China but raised in the U.S., wondered if East Asians would react differently to reminders of their own death.

“Mortality is so universal, but the ways we cope with mortality may be culturally specific,” she said, noting that East Asians are taught early on to look at the world in terms of yin and yang. From that philosophical perspective, life and death are inseparable; death would mean nothing without life, and vice-versa.

“From a Western point of view, we think of death as the annihilation of all we hold dear in our hearts,” she said. “But (from an Eastern perspective), when you are reminded of your own death, it can serve as a reminder that right now, you have a wonderful, glorious life to live, and you should make the most of it before it comes to an end.”

Ma-Kellams and her collaborator, Jim Blascovich, conducted five experiments at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which they describe in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Each featured one group of European Americans and a similarly sized group of East Asians, most first- or second-generation immigrants in the U.S.

The key experiment featured 28 European Americans and 30 East Asians. Both the Easterners and the Westerners were divided into two groups—one that wrote a short essay about their own death, and the other that wrote a short essay on dental pain.

After contemplating either their own mortality or dental pain, participants were asked to rate the appeal of various activities. Some, such as “meditate and pray” and “engage in a campus debate,” pointed to the desire to affirm their political or religious identity. Others, including reading a novel and watching a movie, suggested a desire to relax and enjoy life.

While the Westerners showed a slight preference for the identity-enhancing choices, “East Asians preferred to engage in enjoyable daily life activities,” the researchers report. Rather than turning to God, politics or some other source of meaning, they decided to simply have a good time.

Two of the experiments involved humor. In one, 29 European Americans and 26 East Asians wrote about either death or dental pain, then read a series of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips and rated how funny they found them.

East Asians who had been contemplating their own mortality found the strips funnier than those who had been thinking about dental pain. The reverse was true of Westerners.

In another experiment, 32 European Americans and 28 East Asians were asked to “write down the funniest joke they could think of” after contemplating either mortality or dental pain. Independent raters reported that while there was no significant difference between the two groups of European Americans, the East Asians wrote funnier material if they had just been thinking about their own deaths.

Take my life—please!

“These results make good sense to me,” said University of Colorado psychologist Thomas Pyszczynski, one of three scholars who laid down the foundation of terror management theory. “We and other people have done studies that showed very similar responses to mortality salience across diverse cultures, but that doesn’t in any way imply that there shouldn’t also be differences.

“I would think Westerners and Asians would indeed differ in some but not all aspects of how they deal with death. And I think this enriches our understanding of terror management processes, but is basically very consistent with the theory.”

Indeed, Ma-Kellams concludes that these experiments provide “additional support for terror management theory’s basic premise that humans have evolved psychological mechanisms to cope with the otherwise paralyzing fear of death.”

But they also suggest the automatic, unconscious way most Westerners respond to death reminders—to intensely identify with one’s nationality, ethnicity or belief system—isn’t the only way to go.

First, one must become aware of this dynamic. (Such a hardening of attitudes often leads to hostility towards people holding alternative beliefs, and can even increase support for war.) Then, one can choose another path—one that is well-trodden in the Far East.

“Part of the beauty of the human psyche is its incredible adaptiveness,” said Ma-Kellams. “I don’t think you have to be East Asian to cope with death in a different way.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.