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

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

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