The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski

Janet Sayers is left nonplussed by a psychology text that raises more questions than answers

July 23, 2015
Book review: The Worm at the Core, by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski

As a psychology student living in London, I used to frighten myself with thoughts of being dead and carted off in a coffin. What do 21st-century psychology students think about being dead? One might expect to learn something about this from The Worm at the Core, since it reports experiments in which students were asked this question.

The authors subordinate these experiments, however, to illustrating techniques for managing terror about death. These include boosting self-esteem; having faith in one’s “cultural worldview” despite the potential for this to breed ethnocentrism, paranoia and worse; belief in an afterlife; burial rituals (such as those of ancient Egypt and not-so-ancient China); crediting the soul with outliving the body; admiration of celebrities because of their quasi-immortal status; and striving for outstanding achievement so as to live on in the minds of others once one is dead and gone.

“Come to terms with death,” psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski conclude. “Really grasp that being mortal, while terrifying, can also make our lives sublime.”

What, though, of the experiments preceding this conclusion? They involved a “death reminder task” in which students were asked to describe feelings aroused in them by the thought of their death and to jot down, as specifically as possible, what they thought would happen to them as they died and when they were dead. In one experiment, this was followed by students being asked to rate aspects of sexual experience such as “feeling close with my partner”; “skin rubbing against my own skin”; “opening up emotionally with my partner”; “tasting sweat”; and “a tongue in my ear”. This last item, and others on this rating task, reminded me that the experiment was conducted in the US. It is another country. They do things differently there.

Perhaps the students objected, as their peers in the UK might object, to being asked to rate crude, absurd even, aspects of sex. Whether or not this was the case, all we learn is that, unlike the students who watched television before carrying out this rating task, the subjects who had been reminded of death gave numerically lower ratings to bodily as opposed to romantic connotations of sex. Why? Because, say the experimenters, the latter cohort wanted to distance themselves from the body and the mortality it implies.

In another experiment, students did the death reminder task before being set a creativity problem for which they were provided with a packet of hot chocolate mix, two plastic tubes, a thin rope, a paper clip, a compass watch, a rubber band, netting, a glass jar, a cup filled with black dye, a nail, a cup filled with sand, a small flag and a wooden crucifix. Using these objects they were asked to devise methods for separating the sand from the black dye and for fastening the crucifix to the wall. What happened? The death-reminded students took more than twice as long as the other subjects to use the flag as a filter and the cross as a hammer. It is a result the experimenters attribute to the subjects’ sense that this use of those objects violated their status as culturally sacred means of keeping terror of death at bay.

What evidence, though, was there that the death reminder task actually evoked terror of death? None, in so far as we are not told any of the student responses to this task in any experiments reported in The Worm at the Core. It accordingly leaves me no wiser about today’s psychology students’ thoughts about death, or whether they differ from my own as a psychology student, long ago and far away from Arizona and California where it appears these students live or lived.

Janet Sayers is emeritus professor of psychoanalytic psychology, University of Kent.

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life
By Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski
Allen Lane, 288pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780241217252 and 9780141981635 (e-book)
Published 12 May 2015

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