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.”