A quiet ego quiets death anxiety: humility as an existential anxiety buffer

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2014 Apr;106(4):610-23. doi: 10.1037/a0035814.


Five studies tested the hypothesis that a quiet ego, as exemplified by humility, would buffer death anxiety. Humility is characterized by a willingness to accept the self and life without comforting illusions, and by low levels of self-focus. As a consequence, it was expected to render mortality thoughts less threatening and less likely to evoke potentially destructive behavior patterns. In line with this reasoning, Study 1 found that people high in humility do not engage in self-serving moral disengagement following mortality reminders, whereas people low in humility do. Study 2 showed that only people low in humility respond to death reminders with increased fear of death, and established that this effect was driven uniquely by humility and not by some other related personality trait. In Study 3, a low sense of psychological entitlement decreased cultural worldview defense in response to death thoughts, whereas a high sense of entitlement tended to increase it. Study 4 demonstrated that priming humility reduces self-reported death anxiety relative to both a baseline and a pride priming condition. Finally, in Study 5, experimentally induced feelings of humility prevented mortality reminders from leading to depleted self-control. As a whole, these findings obtained from relatively diverse Internet samples illustrate that the dark side of death anxiety is brought about by a noisy ego only and not by a quiet ego, revealing self-transcendence as a sturdier, healthier anxiety buffer than self-enhancement.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Attitude to Death
  • Death*
  • Ego*
  • Existentialism / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Personality
  • Self Concept*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires