Bruce Pankratz: Terror Management Theory and the Great Gun Debate

The book GUNS FOR GOOD GUYS, GUNS FOR BAD GUYS Gun Violence in America by Michael R. Weisser says “The basic problem with the debate about guns, as opposed to debates about other public policy issues, is that the two sides have absolutely no idea what the other side is talking about. They’re not arguing about different definitions, they’re not just using different facts. The two sides exist in two very separate universes.”  One explanation for the two different universes comes from Terror Management Theory.
hal (004)In short Terror Management Theory assumes people are anxious about the fact they will die and know it could happen anytime. People live in cultures that function to keep death anxiety in the background by allowing people to believe the cultural myths to find meaning and significance in their lives. Anything that threatens that faith in their culture has to be defended against or the death anxiety rears its ugly head. I think the gun debate is a clash between two cultures in America each with its own creation myth. People in each of the cultures need to defend themselves against beliefs that are different. This explanation is perhaps too simple but I think there is a lot of truth in it and shows how logical arguments and facts do not matter much just like when people deal with deeply held religious beliefs.

My hope in writing this up is some academics out there will emerge and better discuss how terror management theory applies to the gun debate. I am only looking at one aspect in this article but think it applies in other areas as well.  With that in mind I will attempt to distill some ideas from the books The Worm at the Core: On the role of Death in Life (The Worm for short) by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and  Tom Pyszczynski (SGP for short) and In the Wake of 9-11: The Psychology of Terror (The Wake) on terror management theory and hope to show how terror management theory may offer some insights into the great gun debate.

The theory started when experimental social psychologists SGP discovered anthropologist Earnest Becker’s work and realized Becker was trying to explain two questions SGP were interested in. First, why do people need self – esteem (meaning the belief you have value in a world that means something to you).  And question two, why can’t people get along with people who are not like them. Terror management theory grew out of Becker’s work. Since SGP were experimental social psychologists they came up with ideas to test in their labs. First is a list of the details of TMT and following that is my attempt to describe the two creation myths and what I think they mean to the gun debate.

The basics of terror management theory has the following elements:

  •  SGP start out with the Darwin’s basic assumption that all living things have a biological predisposition toward self – preservation.
  • Humans are born with large brains so are different than other animals. They know they are alive and know they are going to die. The terror in TMT is the anxiety people have about knowing they will die. Making things worse they know they can die anytime.
  • As children grow up they shift from acting to receive their psychological security from being valued by parents to acting in ways to get a sense of value in the eyes of their culture and its gods and their earthly representatives. Cultural worldviews are shared beliefs people create about  The beliefs function to lessen  the horror created by being human with the knowledge one will sometime die and it may not be pleasant. The beliefs do this by allowing people to have some control over  the always present discomfort of death by convincing people they are beings that matter living in a meaningful world. This all only works if people keep the faith in the worldview and they feel they are important contributors to the culture.
  • Cultures have creation stories that lay the groundwork for the belief systems. These stories tell people how they fit in and that they matter. As an example the conservative version of the founding of America with the Founding Fathers, Declaration of Independence and the rest of the story are the basis for the beliefs of the traditional followers of American culture.
  • SGP also mention work by Robert Jay Lifton who talked about the difference between dealing with death discomfort with literal immortality involving an afterlife like some religions do and and symbolic immortality coming from a person’s lasting social connections and contributions to one’s culture. Example of symbolic mortality are achievements and people passing on their genes, assets and and values to their own children hoping for some influence on future generations once they themselves are gone. In addition people can have some sense of immortality by being a valued part of a larger group like  a tribe or the nation that will live on.

SGP used social psychology experiments to attempt to test their theory. There are many more details in The Wake and The Worm but here are some comments based on their findings:


  • As long as people think they are important members within the cultural worldview they belong to they can live their lives feeling confident and secure. But their beliefs are based on faith so when someone runs into people with a different beliefs they have a problem. The other people may be right and you are wrong and the discomfort of death comes back.
  • There is always some death anxiety in a person’s mind and SGP claim it gets projected onto other groups of people within or outside one’s own culture. The other people are scapegoats.
  • There are several ways to handle people who are different: 1)belittle them as misguided or stupid, try to mainstream some of their views or finally even destroy them.
  • Reminders of death cause people to increase their defending and reaffirming of their cultural worldviews. One example of experiments done by SGP shows when reminded of death Christians are more likely to dislike Jewish people in the US but in Israel experimenters found people are more likely to dislike Christians and Muslims.

Applying TMT to the Gun Debate

This is a bit broad but I think America has two cultural worldviews each with its own creation myth and that is why logical gun debates may be fruitless in trying to solve the problem of gun violence.

First, the traditional American creation myth and world view as described by SPG:  “… for patriotic Americans, the Revolutionary War, George Washington, the Declaration of Independence, and so on serve vital roles in their meaning systems. In this meaningful worldview, being a patriotic American makes one significant—no longer a purposeless, transient animal, one is now an eternally significant contributor to a great nation that represents eternal values of freedom and democracy. In this way, cultural worldviews set up the path to immortality, to transcendence of one’s own death. By being valued contributors to such a meaningful world, we become permanent constituents of an eternal symbolic reality, instead of just corporeal beings in a wholly material reality.” (Pyszyzynski, Tom. In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror (Kindle Locations 441-446). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.)

This is my own impression of what I call the progressive version of a creation myth for America.  The myth says Columbus who was a white European male sailed to America and was followed by more white Europeans who pushed the native people off their land and decimated their cultures with reservations and boarding schools. For cheap labor the Europeans imported slaves who built the White House and the economy.  Many of the founding fathers (all men) owned slaves and did not allow them or women to vote. The industrial era came along and the capitalists exploited the workers to become super rich and in the long run put so much carbon dioxide in the air that the planet is in danger.  This all means educated people have a duty to fight racism, sexism, income inequality, climate change and other social ills by advocating for government programs paid for by the rich people and corporations who have unfairly exploited all of the vulnerable people.  I think many or even most anti-gun people subscribe to some form of the progressive creation myth.

TMT talks about people needing to defend themselves against the existence of cultural worldviews different from their own to prevent death anxiety from surfacing.  As SGP say in  The Wake “Probably the most common response is to simply view the others as misguided , unenlightened , or too stupid , uninformed , or brain – washed to see through the facade of unreasonable faith that ties them to their delusory belief system ; and perhaps to wish silently that someday , somehow , they will see the light and come to view the world from our own far superior perspective .

Much of the talk about guns is to me about protecting one’s worldview against people who have a different worldview. Some examples for this in people with the progressive worldview is talking about the bitter clingers who cling to their religion and guns or saying proposed gun law changes are ‘reasonable’ or ‘common sense’ meant as a way to put down the people on the other side who are uneducated ignorant people who have neither. And when one reads the latest NRA pitch talking about the Founding Fathers it is almost like they want money to defend the traditional creation myth and culture. And if you don’t send money you will feel death anxiety though they don’t say that or perhaps even know they are saying it.

If you want more information on terror management theory try finding some of the many YouTube videos featuring Sheldon Solomon.







5 thoughts on “Bruce Pankratz: Terror Management Theory and the Great Gun Debate

  1. Kinda makes some sense. I’ve gradually come to think that the Great Gun Debate isn’t about guns so much as that guns are the overarching metaphor for the clash of ideologies, left vs. right, in the United States.

  2. Good analysis. Individual gun rights and social gun control presented as ‘lightning rod’ components in a much larger ideological struggle. But I would wager that many on both sides subscribe to, or at least are curious about, some of the components in the other camp. For example, one can believe in individual gun rights with respect to self-defense, yet also be concerned about carbon emissions and the associated global effects on climate. And it’s important to note the role that the U.S. social and mass media agencies play in keeping the ideological struggle stripped down – it’s in their corporate financial interest to have simplistic, uncomplicated programming that cultivates a reliable, conforming audience.

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