"In a new book surveying that work, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (Random House), Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski argue that fear of death drives our actions to a much greater extent than people realize. "The terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics, and science," they write. "It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in Manhattan. It contributes to conflicts around the globe. At a more personal level, recognition of our mortality leads us to love fancy cars, tan ourselves to an unhealthy crisp, max out our credit cards, drive like lunatics, itch for a fight with a perceived enemy, and crave fame, however ephemeral, even if we have to drink yak urine on Survivor to get it."
But how could they test Becker’s other claims, about the death-denying functions of our beliefs about reality? They settled on an experimental model in which some subjects would be reminded of their mortality while others would not. If terror-management theory were correct, they reasoned, then people who got the death reminders should more intensely cling to their culturally acquired beliefs.
In their first experiment, the psychologists had municipal-court judges in Tucson set bail in what looked like an actual case involving a woman cited for prostitution. Half of them first filled out a questionnaire designed to remind them of death. It consisted of two questions: (1) Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you; and (2) Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.
The results were striking. Judges not reminded of their mortality set an average bond of $50, the typical amount. Those who had thought about death set an average bond of $455. Hypothesis confirmed. "The results showed that the judges who thought about their own mortality reacted by trying to do the right thing as prescribed by their culture," the psychologists explain in The Worm at the Core. "Accordingly, they upheld the law more vigorously than their colleagues who were not reminded of death.""