Cancer and the threat of death: the cognitive dynamics of death-thought suppression and its impact on behavioral health intentions

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2007 Jan;92(1):12-29. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.1.12.


Five studies examined the cognitive association between thoughts of cancer and thoughts of death and their implication for screening intentions. Study 1 found that explicit contemplation of cancer did not increase death-thought accessibility. In support of the hypothesis that this reflects suppression of death-related thoughts, Study 2 found that individuals who thought about cancer exhibited elevated death-thought accessibility under high cognitive load, and Study 3 demonstrated that subliminal primes of the word cancer led to increased death-thought accessibility. Study 4 revealed lower levels of death-thought accessibility when perceived vulnerability to cancer was high, once again suggesting suppression of death-related thoughts in response to conscious threats associated with cancer. Study 5 extended the analysis by finding that after cancer salience, high cognitive load, which presumably disrupts suppression of the association between cancer and death, decreased cancer-related self-exam intentions. Theoretical and practical implications for understanding terror management, priming and suppression, and responses to cancer are discussed.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attitude to Death*
  • Breast Self-Examination / psychology
  • Cognition*
  • Defense Mechanisms*
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Free Association
  • Health Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Intention
  • Missouri
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Reaction Time
  • Subliminal Stimulation