Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 36, Issue 4, pp 478–482

The creative spark of death: The effects of mortality salience and personal need for structure on creativity


    • Department of PsychologyNorth Dakota State University
  • Jacob Juhl
    • Department of PsychologyNorth Dakota State University
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11031-011-9274-1

Cite this article as:
Routledge, C. & Juhl, J. Motiv Emot (2012) 36: 478. doi:10.1007/s11031-011-9274-1


Previous research indicates that the awareness of death can be a barrier to creative expression. Specifically, when mortality is rendered salient, creativity is inhibited. However, no studies have considered how individual differences may impact the effect of mortality salience on creativity. Past research has found that mortality salience increases explorative thought processes for individuals low in personal need for structure. Thus, for these people, mortality salience may increase, not decrease, creativity. The current study examined this possibility. Personal need for structure was measured, mortality salience was experimentally manipulated, and creativity was assessed. As predicted, mortality salience increased creativity amongst individuals low in personal need for structure. No effect of mortality salience was observed amongst individuals high in personal need for structure.


Terror managementCreativityPersonal need for structure


Creative expression requires one to think differently, to go beyond traditional ways of viewing the world (e.g., Amabile 1983; Chi 1997; McCrae 1987; Ohlsson 1992). The ability to be creative is of paramount significance as it has allowed humans to fashion not only beautiful works of art, but also to engineer innovative technologies and medicines that have proven vital for our survival. However, such divergent thinking can be challenging when convergent thinking provides feelings of existential security. Specifically, studies have shown that when personal mortality is salient (i.e., mortality salience or MS), attitudinal rigidity increases and creativity is hampered (e.g., Routledge et al. 2008). This poses the question: Can MS inspire creativity or does it always undercut it? To date, no studies have examined the possibility that for some people, MS may facilitate creative expression. The current study explores this possibility.

Terror management theory and the existential motivation for convergent thinking

Humans, like all organisms, strive to survive and thrive. Yet, humans possess the sophisticated cognitive architecture required to contemplate the reality of mortal existence. Not only are we aware of death, but we can introspect about what death means for the self and all we have come to love about living. According to terror management theory (TMT; Greenberg et al. 1986) this juxtaposition of a basic desire to live and a full realization of the fragility and transience of life has the potential to cause great distress. The theory proposes that humans are motivated to construct and adhere to the norms of cultural systems that mitigate death-related distress. Cultural belief systems or worldviews provide solace as they redefine existence in ways that make humans more than mortal. Specifically, religious worldviews often offer literal solutions to the problem of death (e.g., souls, the afterlife), while secular worldviews provide symbolic means to defy mortality by outlining how people can have lives of greater meaning and purpose (e.g., investing in cultural institutions that transcend any individual death). In support of this position, numerous studies have found that MS increases people’s tendency to identify with, defend, and conform to the social expectations of prominent transcendence-providing cultural worldviews (for extensive presentations, see Greenberg et al. 1997; Pyszczynksi et al. 2004). Typically, such responses to MS can be characterized as cognitively and attitudinally rigid. For example, Greenberg et al. (1995) found that reminders of mortality decreased peoples’ ability to use cultural icons in unconventional ways (e.g., using a crucifix as a hammer) to solve an experimental task.

Death as a barrier to creativity

MS tends to promote cognitive and attitudinal rigidity. Therefore, it seems most likely that MS would be a barrier to creativity. Indeed, MS decreases creativity unless the creative behavioral task is framed as an activity that would bolster one’s connection to the broader cultural world. Specifically, (Routledge et al. 2008) manipulated MS by having participants write about their own mortality or a non-death control topic and subsequently asked participants to engage in a creative task. In this task, participants were asked to generate ideas for planning a rock concert. Half of the participants were informed to view the task as self-oriented (i.e., to make money for themselves). The other half were informed to view the task as community-oriented (i.e., to give something back to the community). Coders evaluated the concert ideas for creativity. MS decreased creativity when the focus was self-oriented but had no significant effect on creativity when the focus was on the community. Further, research has found that asking participants to engage in creative behavior (i.e., writing a creative story) after MS increases feelings of guilt (Arndt et al. 1999) unless people’s sense of connection to their cultural world is reinforced prior to the creative task (Arndt et al. 2005). In other words, there is an emotional cost to divergent thinking when convergent thinking provides existential comfort.

In all, studies indicate that death awareness is a barrier to creativity. MS tends to inhibit creativity and when creative processes are activated by experimental induction after MS, there are emotional repercussions (i.e., guilt). Connecting creative behavior to the broader culture can mitigate the basic effects of MS undermining creativity and creativity causing guilt after MS, but no studies have found any evidence that death awareness can inspire creativity. However, these studies did not consider the potential for individual differences to impact the effect of MS on creativity.

Breaking death’s barrier to creativity: MS, personal need for structure, and attitudinal rigidity

Recent research investigating the relationship between MS and individual differences in personal need for structure (PNS) suggests that MS may motivate creativity for some individuals. PNS reflects the extent to which one desires to perceive the world in clear, certain, and unambiguous terms (Thompson et al. 2001). People high in PNS prefer order, simplicity, and predictability. They tend to see the world as black and white. People low in PNS, however, are more comfortable with and may even seek out complexity, novelty, and uncertainty. They tend to see the world in shades of grey.

Studies have discovered that it is primarily people with high, but not low, PNS that respond to MS with the attitudinally rigid responses previously discussed. For example, across three experiments Juhl and Routledge (2010) found that MS increased (1) negative evaluations of a person who criticized one’s university community, (2) positive evaluations of a person who reinforced one’s religious tradition, and (3) self-reported willingness to use aggression as a means to defend one’s religion. Critically, these effects were only found amongst individuals high in PNS. Similarly, Routledge et al. (2010) found that for people high, but not low, in PNS, MS decreased interest in taking a non-traditional approach to the Thanksgiving meal (i.e., preparing ethnic dishes instead of traditional American dishes). These studies suggest that it is specifically people high in PNS who avoid divergent thinking after MS.

Studies also suggest that people low in PNS may prefer a more divergent response to MS. For example, Vess et al. (2009) and Routledge et al. (2010) found that MS promotes open-minded and explorative thought amongst individuals low in PNS. In the Routledge et al. research, for individuals low in PNS, MS increased interest in having a non-traditional Thanksgiving meal. In the Vess et al. research, for individuals low in PNS, MS increased scores on a measure of intellectual exploration (i.e., the desire to seek out novel experiences and beliefs; Green and Campbell 2000). Importantly, after MS, explorative behavior increased perceptions of meaning for low, but not high, PNS individuals. These studies focused on attitudinal flexibility or openness to different ways of thinking about the world and not specifically creativity. However, they suggest that for people who tend to be more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, divergent thinking may provide existential security after MS. Thus, although death awareness may be a barrier to creativity for those whose thinking becomes increasingly rigid and dogmatic after MS, this awareness may actually promote creativity for individuals who take a more explorative route to managing existential concerns.

The present study

To date, no research has examined whether individual differences in PNS moderate the effect of MS on creativity. In the present study, the effects of MS and PNS on creativity are examined. Since MS motivates explorative thought for people low in PNS, it is hypothesized that MS will increase creativity for individuals low in PNS. Since MS motivates cognitive rigidity for people high in PNS, it is hypothesized that MS will decrease creativity for individuals high in PNS.


Participants and procedure

Forty-seven (24 female, 2 gender unreported) undergraduate students at a large American university participated in exchange for course credit. Participants were informed that the study concerned the relationship between personality and cognitive processes, completed all materials in private cubicles, and were fully debriefed after the experimental session. Materials were presented in the order that follows.


Personal need for structure (PNS)

Participants completed Thompson et al.’s (2001) 12-item PNS Scale, which was embedded within filler personality measures. The PNS scale assesses the extent to which individuals prefer order, certainty, and unambiguous knowledge. Example items include “I enjoy having a clear and structured mode of life” and “I don’t like situations that are uncertain.” Participants indicated their level of agreement with each item on 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree) scale. Four item were reverse scored and averaged with the rest to compute PNS scores (M = 3.36, SD = .77, Cronbach’s α = .82).

Mortality salience manipulation

Following previous research (e.g., Rosenblatt et al. 1989), MS was manipulated by having participants respond to two questions concerning death: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you once you are physically dead.” Control participants responded to parallel questions regarding the experience of dental pain, a generally aversive topic used frequently in TMT research (e.g., Landau et al. 2006).

Prior research has established that meaning related defenses (e.g., worldview defense) occur most prominently when thoughts of death are highly accessible but outside conscious awareness (see e.g., Pyszczynski et al. 1999). As such, participants completed an innocuous word search task which served as a delay exercise between the experimental manipulations and the dependent measure.

Creative task and coding

Participants were asked to design a t-shirt with the goal of being as creative as possible (see Routledge et al. 2004; Routledge and Arndt 2009). Participants were provided with a page of paper that has an outline of a t-shirt on it and a box of colored markers. Participants were instructed to take no more than 7 min to complete this task. Creativity was quantified by having two independent coders that were not involved with running the experiment rate the designs on a 5-point scale (1 = least creative and 5 = most creative). Research suggests that this method is a reliable means of assessing creativity and subjective creativity ratings are associated with other established indicators of a person’s creativity (e.g., Big 5 personality traits, college major; Silvia et al. 2008). Further, previous research examining the effects of MS on creativity has employed this method and obtained theoretically consistent results (Routledge et al. 2008). The coders first read a paper on judging creativity from a social psychological perspective (i.e., Amabile 1983) so as to familiarize them with the endeavor. They were then instructed to use their own judgment in determining the extent to which they perceived the designs as creative. Coders did not look through proposals prior to rating them and were not instructed to aim for a specific distribution of scores. The coder’s ratings were highly correlated (r = .55, P < .001) and thus the two scores for each participant were averaged (M = 2.62, SD = 1.02).


To examine the relationship between MS and PNS on creativity, we conducted a regression analysis in which MS (dummy coded) and PNS (centered) were entered in the first step and the interaction term in the second step as predictors of creativity. In the first step, there was a main effect of PNS such that higher PNS scores were associated with lower levels of creativity, B = −.43, SE = .17, t(44) = −2.54, P = .02, 95% CI [−.77, −.09]. There was also a main effect for MS such that participants in the MS condition displayed higher levels of creativity than participants in the control condition, B = .82, SE = .26, t(44) = 3.15, P = .003, 95% CI [.30, 1.35]. However, these were qualified by a significant PNS by MS interaction in the second step, B = −.71, SE = .34, t(43) = −2.08, P = .04, 95% CI [−1.39, −.02] (see Fig. 1). To further explore the interaction, predicted means tests were conducted at one standard deviation below and above the mean of PNS. As predicted, at low levels of PNS, MS increased creativity, B = 1.32, SE = .35, t(43) = 3.80, P = .000, 95% CI [.62, 2.03]. At high levels of PNS, no significant effect was observed, B = .24, SE = .38, t(43) = .63, P = .53, 95% CI [−.52, 1.00]. Looked at differently, within the MS condition, PNS and creativity scores were significantly inversely related, B = −.88, SE = .27, t(43) = −3.25, P = .002, 95% CI [−1.42, −.33]. Within the control condition, PNS and creativity scores were not significantly related, B = −.17, SE = .20, t(43) = −.84, P = .41, 95% CI [−.58, .24].
Fig. 1

The effects of MS and PNS on creativity. Higher scores on the y axis indicate higher levels of creativity


Rendering death salient increased creativity, but only amongst those low in PNS. Death salience had no effect on creativity amongst those high in PNS. These findings contribute to the growing body of research on existential threat and creative processes. Whereas previous research suggests that the awareness of death is a barrier to creativity, the current study paves the way for future work to consider death awareness as a creative spark.

Previous research derived from TMT indicates that once people invest in a particular way of perceiving the world, they are often motivated to not stray from that system of thought. The current research suggests, however, that there are individuals motivated to stray from mainstream ways of thinking. The current study complements recent studies (Routledge et al. 2010; Vess et al. 2009) showing that MS increases explorative thought processes amongst low PNS individuals by highlighting another avenue of divergent thinking that MS can inspire. In conjunction with these recent findings, the present study is of particular significance because, traditionally, TMT and research using the MS paradigm have focused on outcomes of death awareness that tend to be socially problematic (e.g., prejudice, religious intolerance, aggression; see Vail et al. 2011). That is, when MS causes people to rigidly cling to their cultural beliefs, it often increases derogation and aggression against those who have differing cultural views (Solomon et al. 2000). Thus, the current finding that MS can inspire creativity, at least for some, suggests that responses to MS do not have to be socially problematic. Indeed, recent research has found that priming creativity after MS increases openness to different cultural worldviews (Routledge and Arndt 2009). Future research should continue to assess the more personally and socially beneficial behaviors that death awareness may motivate and the role that creative thought processes may play in fostering such behaviors.

Similarly, future theoretical and empirical work should perhaps also return to the issue of how death awareness is construed. Building on the typical observation that MS triggers attitudes and behaviors that tend to be labeled as defensive (e.g., outgroup derogation), death awareness has typically been construed as a threat to the self. Yet, the current study and other recent findings suggest that perhaps it is incorrect to always perceive the awareness of mortality as a threat. Since MS can foster creative behavior and explorative pursuits, might death awareness also be construed as an inspiration or growth motivation, not a threat? Whether we call it a threat or not is a difficult theoretical question. However, future research should further explore the ways that MS may motivate self-expression and personal growth.

Future research may also want to further consider how MS influences creativity for individuals high in PNS. In the current study, no effect was found. However, it seemed reasonable to predict that MS would decrease creativity for high PNS individuals as these are the people that display increased attitudinal rigidity after MS. Perhaps, however, a lack of creativity is not synonymous with rigid investment in cultural worldviews that has been seen in previous research. Thus, our creative task may have not been best suited for capturing the effects of MS on people high in PNS. That is, our task was designed to assess divergent, not convergent, thinking. Even so, previous research has found that MS decreases creativity (Routledge et al. 2008). In that research, however, MS only decreased creativity when participants were given self-focused instructions on the creative task (i.e., plan a concert for self-gain). In the present research, participants were merely asked to be as creative as possible. The focus of the creative behavior was not manipulated. Therefore, MS may only undermine creativity when people are instructed to focus on the self or something that disconnects them from others. In short, there are many questions to pursue relating to the effects of MS on creative processes. The current study paves the way for such research by indicating that the human awareness of mortality can be a creative spark.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012