Fearing Death? Think Progress!

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Is the human race gradually evolving into a better version of itself? Scientific and technological advances aside, the historical evidence for this proposition is, at best, mixed. While cultural norms change, the 2,500-year-old dramas of the ancient Greeks still feel like accurate reflections of human behavior.

Yet most of us cling to the notion of human progress, insisting that our children will inhabit a more just society, or that our own contribution will make the world a better place. Why? Three social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam have come up with a reason: It makes it easier to accept the reality of our own deaths.

Not unlike religious faith, "belief in progress provides a protective existential buffer," according to a paper just published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Expanding on the ideas of Terror Management Theory, lead author Bastiaan T. Rutjens argues that the belief in progress, which can be traced back to such Enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Hume, is "a secular faith" that is "one way of pervading our world with meaning."

The researchers tested this thesis with three experiments. In the first and most central of these, 33 female participants wrote a short essay describing their thoughts and feelings about one of two subjects: dental pain, or their own deaths. After performing several additional tasks, they read an essay arguing that human progress is an illusion.

Finally, they were asked a series of questions to determine the extent to which they agreed with the anti-progress argument. Those who had thought about their own mortality were significantly less likely to accept the argument than those who had opined about toothaches.

The researchers consider this particular defense mechanism a reasonably healthy psychological response. After all, they note, previous studies have found that when people are confronted with their own mortality, "they tend to rate individuals with different cultural beliefs as less intelligent" in an attempt to forge a feeling of solidarity with people of their own ethnicity or nationality.

In contrast, they note, belief in progress "generally seems to bear no such social disadvantages. There is no demonstrable group that explicitly challenges this belief, and therefore no ground for outgroup derogation and social conflict."

So as a response to existential fears, faith in the future — whether justified or not — is preferable to turning on those who don’t share your world view. If more people took this route, we could even call it progress.