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

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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