And when did you stop beating your wife…?

June 6, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Well, May 21st came and went, without occurrence of The Rapture, as famously predicted by Harold Camping (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Camping). As rumor has it, Camping has reset the date for sometime in October. All of this seems very strange to most people, and in general we assume that the plausibility of any belief system is inversely proportional to the number of people who hold it as true. But to those caught up in this Rapture and End of the World belief system, the very enormity of the rejection and dismissal by outsiders is taken as further evidence for the correctness of the belief itself.

Are we really so immune to this intellectual move, a move summoned to rationalize the reality that we see in order to ameliorate the cognitive dissonance caused by having our view rejected by others? For many strict Freudians, the only motive that anyone could possibly have for rejecting the Oedipal theory is that the person were still laboring under the strains of an unresolved Oedipal Complex. The more vociferously opponents argued against and rejected the theory, the more their rejection demonstrated the correctness of the theory to those who held it as true. This would be true of any theory that contains as part of the theory itself an explanation for why people might be expected to resist the truth of the theory. As in the line of inquiry, “And just when did you stop beating your wife…?” the conclusion is contained in the premise. There is an undeniably stop element of this in Ernest Becker’s ideas on death anxiety/immortality striving as a root motivational strategy in human behavioral psychology (what I have called the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety.) It is very easy to slip into a mode of thinking in which someone’s opposition or rejection of the theory is interpreted as an exhibition of “denial.”

Having spent much of my early scholarly career investigating all kinds of strange, sectarian belief systems and trying to understand how it could be that people could hold to these beliefs, I am naturally suspicious of any statement that assumes a logic of “the more people think it is ridiculous, the more true it must be!” Nevertheless, it is clear that really profound theories, theories that strongly question much of what people take as “common sense,” cannot be expected to find immediate assent in the marketplace of ideas. So how can we navigate this potential conflict responsibly? Here is my suggestion.

1) Make oneself as familiar as possible with Terror Management Theory. TMT is composed of empirical studies built on Becker’s basic ideas and, after 20-plus years of research, these studies have been showing Becker’s ideas to be very robust in laboratory testing. This alone places Becker’s work on par with the best of any depth-psychological theories available, and a cut or two (or twenty) above most of them.

2) Cultivate a view of Becker’s work as a broadly connecting theory and resist the temptation of diagnosing “death denial” every time someone sneezes. Undoubtedly, on the everyday level, there are much more simple and convincing explanations for most human behavior. On that level, the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety will be no more convincing that these other perspectives, and often seem much more distant and abstract by direct comparison. GDA Theory begins to demonstrate its power and utility as we try to find some basis for unifying these more partial theories to see what they might have in common. If we reflexively pull out the death denial theory to explain every little human behavioral frailty, it starts to look more like an ideology than as a robust theory.



  1. Moderation in all things, including Becker.

  2. […] And when did you stop beating your wife…? (thedenialfile.wordpress.com) […]

  3. Good post – I would agree entirely. I would add one more suggestion: that we become knowledgeable of the fundamental theoretical assumptions of other paradigms and perspectives, as well as having a rough sketch of its research base. This can help us understand when our ‘pet theory’ is better accounted for by another, or better diagnose sources of ‘conflict’ or misunderstandings between theoretical positions.

  4. An important reminder of the value of self-awareness and the inherent tendency toward (and dangers of) insular thinking.
    Great post.

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