Self-Esteem and Death Concerns After Ego-Threat

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The results of the three studies just described showed a negligible relationship between self-esteem and fear of death. Furthermore, when correlations were obtained, they tended to involve uncertainty or coping rather than fears of nonexistence, and were mediated by anxiety.
If high self-esteem buffers people against death-related anxiety, events that threaten self-esteem should increase concerns about death (because the esteem-based anxiety buffer is compromised), whereas events that increase self-esteem should lower them. Along these lines, Greenberg et al. (1992) found that participants who received positive feedback about themselves expressed less anxiety about watching a videotape of death-related scenes (such an autopsy and an electrocution) than participants who received neutral feedback.
In a study that examined this hypothesis using a real threat to self-esteem, 122 students were tested on the day that they received grades on a midterm exam in a psychology course. After the instructor distributed students’ scored tests, a questionnaire booklet was distributed. Participants were led to imagine vividly two positive and two negative events: their own death, graduating from college, rejection by another person, and receiving an honor or award. (The order of these four situations was counterbalanced.) After imagining each situation, participants rated how the hypothetical situation made them feel. Participants also indicated the score they had expected to obtain on the exam and the minimum score with which they would have been satisfied, and rated their state self-esteem.

Correlations between self-esteem and feelings after imagining death, rejection, and graduation were all nonsignificant (-.08 < rs < -.11). Only feelings about being honored correlated with self-esteem, r = -.20, p < .05. (Perhaps persons with higher self-esteem are more accustomed to being honored and, thus, experience less positive affect in such situations.) Again, no support was obtained for a link between self-esteem and death-related anxiety.

To test the possibility that self-esteem and feelings about death are related only in the face of an esteem-threatening event, two indices of success vs. failure were calculated. One involved the difference between the score participants expected on the exam and the score they obtained, and the other involved the difference between the minimum score with which participants would have been satisfied and the score they earned. In both cases, a positive difference reflected subjective failure, whereas a negative difference indicated subjective success. Both indices correlated highly with self-feelings (r = -.39 with the expected-obtained difference; r = -.60 with minimum-obtained difference), but neither index of subjective success-failure correlated with anxiety after imagining one’s death. Thus, this study obtained no evidence of a link between self-esteem and feelings about death either in general or after contemplating one's own death, and subjective failure on the test was unrelated to death anxiety.

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