Good evening ladies and gentlemen. So I have a question: who here remembers when they first realized they were going to die? I do.
I was a young boy and my Grandfather had just died and I remember, a few days later, lying in bed at night trying to make sense of what had happened. What did it mean that he was dead? Where had he gone? It was like a hole in reality had opened up and swallowed him. But then the really shocking question occurred to me, if he could die, could it happen to me to? Could that hole in reality open up and swallow me? Would it open up beneath my bed and swallow me as I slept? Well, at some point all children become aware of death. It can happen in different ways, of course and usually comes in stages.
Our idea of death develops as we grow older. And if you reach back into the dark corners of your memory, you might remember something like what I felt when my grandfather died and when I realized it could happen to me too. That sense that behind all of this, the void is waiting. And this development in childhood reflects the development of our species. Just as there was a point in your development as a child, when you sense of self and of time became sophisticated enough for you to realize you were mortal. So at some point in the evolution of our species some early humans’ sense of self and of time became sophisticated enough for them to become the first humans to realize: “I’m going to die.”
This is, if you like, our curse: it’s the price we pay for being so damn clever. We have to live in the knowledge that the worst thing that can possibly happen, one day surely will. The end of all our projects, our hopes, our dreams, of our individual world. We each live in the shadow of a personal apocalypse. And that’s frightening! It’s terrifying, and so we look for a way out.
And in my case, as I was about five years old, this meant asking my Mum. Now when I first started asking, “what happens when we die?”, the grown-ups around me at the time answered with a typical English mix of awkwardness and half-hearted Christianity. And the phrase I heard most often was that Grandad was now ‘up there looking down on us.’ And if I should die too, which wouldn’t happen of course, then I too would go up there. Which made death sound a lot like an existential elevator.
Now this didn’t sound very plausible. I used to watch a children’s news programme at the time and this was the era of space exploration. There were always rockets going up into the sky, up into space, going ‘up there.’ But none of the astronauts when they came back ever mentioned having met my grandad. Or any other dead people.
But I was scared. And the idea of taking the existential elevator to see my Grandad sounded a lot better than being swallowed by the void while I slept. And so I believed it anyway, even though it didn’t make much sense. And this thought process that I went through as a child, and have been through many times since including as a grown-up, is a product of what psychologists call a ‘bias.’ Now a bias is a way in which we systematically get things wrong, ways in which we miscalculate, misjudge, distort reality or see what we want to see.
And the bias I am talking about works like this: confront someone with the fact that they are going to die and they will believe just about any story that tells them it isn’t true and then can instead live for ever. Even if it means taking the existential elevator. Now, we can see this as the biggest bias of all. It has been demonstrated in over 400 empirical studies. Now these studies are ingenious but they’re simple, they work like this: you take two groups of people who are similar in all relevant respects and you remind one group that they’re going to die but not the other; and then you compare their behavior.
So you’re observing how it biases behavior when people become aware of their mortality. And every time, you get the same result: people who are made aware of their mortality are more willing to believe stories that tell them that they can escape death and live forever. So here’s an example: one recent study took two groups of agnostics, that is people who are undecided in their religious beliefs. Now one group was asked to think about being dead, the other group was asked to think about being lonely. They were then again asked about their religious beliefs: those who had been asked to think about being dead were afterwards twice as likely to express faith in God and Jesus.
Twice as likely. Even though before they were equally agnostic. But put the fear of death in them and they run to Jesus. Now, this shows that reminding people of death biases them to believe, regardless of the evidence. And it works not just for religion but for any kind of belief system that promises immortality in some form, whether it’s becoming famous, or having children, or even nationalism which promises you can live on as part of a greater whole.
This is a bias that has shaped the course of human history. Now the theory behind this bias in nearly 400 studies is called terror management theory. And the idea is simple, it’s just this: we develop our world views, that is the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, in order to help us manage the terror of death. And these immortality stories have thousands of different manifestations. But I believe that behind the apparent diversity, there are actually just four basic forms that these immortality stories can take.