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Abstract

Terror management theory (TMT) posits that the need for self-esteem develops out of the socialization process in which children learn to abide by parental and, eventually, societal standards of ‘goodness’ to feel securely embedded in a cultural belief system. According to TMT, feeling safely immersed in a meaningful conception of reality (i.e., the cultural worldview) ultimately functions to protect people from anxiety due to the uniquely human capacity to be cognizant of their eventual death. After presenting the basic tenets of this perspective, we review several lines of research supporting it and then address some common questions and criticisms of the theory such as how is a TMT view of anxiety consistent with evolutionary principles, why do people commit suicide, and how is self-esteem pursued in non-Western, self-effacing cultures? Finally, we discuss some implications of TMT for understanding social problems and for pursuing meaning and self-esteem in healthier, more socially productive ways.