A Psycho-Existential View of Culture

Part of the International and Cultural Psychology book series (ICUP)


A central proposition of this book is that culture(s) have important characteristics and functions that address core human concerns and needs. At the outset of this volume, multiple definitions of “culture” were considered and two became the focus of this narrative. It was asserted that humans have an existential need to know how to be and act in the world ...that humans need a roadmap for living and that culture(s) serve as a psychological defense against the terror inherent in the human condition. Culture(s) serve this essential function by providing a worldview that may be internalized that offers standards that if achieved allows for the construction of self-esteem. Self-esteem, the conviction that one has value in a meaningful world, serves as defense against the potentially crippling anxiety that is resident in the human condition due to our cognitive complexity that allows for the realization of our mortality. The conviction that one is of value in a meaningful world (self-esteem) is proposed as a human need that is addressed and constructed culturally. A previous chapter described how Buddhism, Confucianism and Judaism describe reality and offer a roadmap for being and acting in the world. This chapter will focus on how culture(s) serve as a psychological defense against existential terror. Selected evidence for this proposition extracted from the hundreds of empirical tests of hypotheses developed from Terror Management Theory (TMT) will be presented and the implications and applications of this compelling theory will be suggested and examined. Central to this examination is the foundational question of What do humans really need and how do culture(s) address them. Following this discussion, we will examine the psychological and behavioral consequences that happens when a people’s culture is traumatically disrupted and the world of meaning is shattered or the standards of value described by that description of reality become inaccessible.


Existential Meaningful world Terror management Human condition Terror management hypotheses Empirical tests 


  1. Becker, E. (1971). The birth and death of meaning (2nd ed.). New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  2. Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  3. Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  4. Fernandez, S., Castano, E., & Singh, I. (2010). Managing death in the burning grounds of Varanasi, India: A terror management investigation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 41(2), 182–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Florian, V., & Mikulincer, M. (1998). Symbolic immortality and the management of the terror of death: The moderating role of attachment style. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(3), 725–734.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Friedman, T. (2000). The lexus and the olive tree. New York: Anchor Books.Google Scholar
  7. Goldenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2000). Fleeing the body: A terror management theory perspective on the problem of human corporeality. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4(3), 200–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Simon, S., & Chatel, D. (1992). Terror management and tolerance: Does mortality salience always intensify negative reactions to others who threaten one’s worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(2), 212–220.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Pine, E., Simon, L., & Jordan, K. (1993). Effects of self-esteem on vulnerability-denying defensive distortions: Further evidence of an anxiety buffering function of self-esteem. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 29, 229–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Burling, J., Lyon, S., et al. (1992). Assessing terror management analysis of self-esteem: Converging evidence of an anxiety-buffering function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 913–922.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., et al. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 308–318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  13. Greider, W. (1998). One world, ready or not: The manic logic of global capitalism. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  14. Harmon-Jones, E., Simon, L., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & McGregor, H. (1997). Terror management theory and self-esteem: Evidence that increased self-esteem reduces mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 24–36.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2014). Life is pretty meaningful. American Psychologist, 69(6), 561–574. Scholar
  16. Huntington, S. P. (1997). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Touchstone.Google Scholar
  17. Mikulincer, M., & Florian, V. (2000). Exploring individual differences in reactions to mortality salience: Does attachment style regulate terror management mechanisms? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(2), 260.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Pyszczynski, T., Abdooahi, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., et al. (2006). Mortality salience, martyrdom and military might: The great satan and the axis of evil. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(4), 525–537.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Salzman, M. (2001). Globalization, culture & anxiety. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 10(4), 337–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszcyznski, T. (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 91–159). San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  21. Stevens, M. J. (2002). The unanticipated consequences of globalization: Contextualizing terrorism. In C. E. Stout (Ed.), The psychology of terrorism (Vol. 3, pp. 31–56). London: Praeger.Google Scholar
  22. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel & L. W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.Google Scholar
  23. Triandis, H. C. (1994). Culture and social behavior.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Educational PsychologyUniversity of Hawai‘i at ManoaHonoluluUSA

Personalised recommendations