Destined to die but not to wage war: how existential threat can contribute to escalation or de-escalation of violent intergroup conflict

Am Psychol. 2013 Oct;68(7):543-58. doi: 10.1037/a0033052.


War means threat to people's lives. Research derived from terror management theory (TMT) illustrates that the awareness of death leads people to defend cultural ingroups and their worldviews to attain a sense of symbolic immortality and thereby buffer existential anxiety. This can result in hostile effects of mortality salience (MS), such as derogation of outgroup members, prejudice, stereotyping, aggression, and racism, which, in turn, can lead to the escalation of violent intergroup conflict and, thus, the escalation of war. Yet, escalation of destructive conflict following MS is not automatic. Instead, research on TMT suggests that MS does not necessarily result in conflict and intolerance but can also foster positive tendencies, such as intergroup fairness or approval of pacifism, depending on how existential threat is perceived, whether the need for symbolic self-transcendence is satisfied, which social norms are salient, and how social situations are interpreted. In the present article, we review current TMT research with the aim of reconciling the seemingly contradictory findings of hostile and peaceful reactions to reminders of death. We present a terror management model of escalation and de-escalation of violent intergroup conflicts, which takes into account the interaction between threat salience and features of the social situation. We also discuss possible intervention strategies to override detrimental consequences of existential threat and argue that war is not the inevitable consequence of threat.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / psychology
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Existentialism / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Prejudice / psychology
  • Psychological Theory
  • Social Perception
  • Stereotyping
  • Violence / prevention & control*
  • Violence / psychology
  • Warfare*