STUDY: Love & Death
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - When fearing death, such as in times of war or other crises, it seems that people tend to gravitate towards romantic attachments.
Now, a new study shows that this is indeed true, with people feeling more committed to their romantic partner if subtly reminded of their own mortality as opposed to being reminded of physical pain or a neutral event.
Such romantic attachments may serve as "terror management," allowing an individual to better tolerate the fact that they will die some day.
"The meaning of this result is that one of the reasons we form and maintain our close relationships is to help us cope with the inevitability of our death," said study author Dr. Gilad Hirschberger of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Hirschberger added that this theory suggests that we are always somewhat afraid of death, "but when reminded of death we raise our defenses against the awareness of this threat" by seeking protection in our close relationships.
The study authors base their findings on a series of experiments they conducted with undergraduate students from Bar-Ilan University.
In one experiment, students who were asked to think about their own deaths said they were more committed to their romantic relationships than those who answered questions about something else unpleasant, such as physical pain, or something neutral, such as watching television.
In another experiment, students who were asked to think about their problems with their current romantic partner were more likely than those who pondered academic problems or television to create death-associated words in a word-completion task. This finding suggests that romantic relationships serve to reduce our anxieties about death, but are less able to do so when we think they are in jeopardy.
In an interview with Reuters Health, Hirschberger explained that some people may turn to their close relationships when reminded of their own death because, as infants, we feel most of our protection from attachments to others.
Romantic closeness can also help us feel we are increasing our chances of having children, which enables our genes to live on after we have died, Hirschberger added.
As evidence for the protection romantic relationships offer us from our fears of death, Hirschberger pointed to the events of September 11th, when the last act of the people trapped in the World Trade Center buildings was to call those they loved most.
"So if to take 9/11 as an example--or the situation in Israel--these threats people experience seem to make them realize that their loved ones are really all that matter, more than superficial goals and desires that are otherwise important," he said.
SOURCE: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2002;82:527-542.
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