A stick figure of a man being hung by his neck with a string is drawn on the board as students enter the classroom. “Goodbye Class,” the message reads.
Though it may have been the actual last day of class, the message leaves an ominously uncertain tone about the broader idea of saying goodbye — death.
In the class “Experimental Existential Psychology,” Daniel Sullivan, an assistant professor of Psychology, teaches students about existentialism, the psychology of human existence.
One aspect of existentialism is called the terror management theory, which is how people deal with the fact that they will inevitably die. And that after being reminded of their death, such as by a tragic event, they view it as more imminent.
Sullivan said that the terror management theory was a highly popular topic in the class.
“Terror management theory is interesting to people because we all know that there is a lot of conflict in the world, there’s a lot of disagreement, there’s a lot of aggression and violence of all kinds,” Sullivan said. “I think that people often feel sort of frustrated by that, and the fact that we’re not always sure why it happens.”
The topic of existentialism and uncertainty is relatable to his class, Sulllivan said, because upperclassmen in college are sometimes unsure of what to expect after they graduate.
“I think it’s a very existentially important time,” Sullivan said. “It may be hard for us to come up with an answer [of why we went to college] or the answer may be very complicated.”
In the first few days of Sullivan’s class, the students introduced themselves to each other by playing hangman, which Sullivan used to relate to the idea of humans’ imminent mortality, with the morbid drawing of a stick figure being hung from a rope.
Andrew Schlicker, a psychology senior in his first year of the master’s program, said Sullivan makes an interesting connection between a game and the thought of mortality.
“It’s pretty interesting how little things like that [hangman] can really trigger people’s self esteem to implicitly rise,” he said.
People seek to understand why tragedies, such as terrorist attacks, happen in order to prevent them, Schlicker said, adding that when tragedies do occur, the thought of death once again creeps into our minds.
Schlicker said he experiences this fear when he remembers a party he attended five or six years ago where there was a shooting.
“Unfortunately it’s interesting how years after that, you can be at places at certain times and little things will kind of trigger you to be a little bit more aware,” Schlicker said, “a little bit more salient that your mortality could possibly be on the fringe.”
The psychology behind mortality is not just studied in Sullivan’s class, but has also been the subject of a 30-year-old study conducted by a UA faculty member and his colleagues. The study looks at what students think of mortality and their reactions to their own imminent death when they’re reminded of it.
Jeff Greenberg, a professor of Psychology, along with other university professors, formed the study after reading a book called “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker, which explores the unconscious denial of death by people in society. The study has been conducted more than 500 times at the UA since the late 80’s and is still ongoing today.
In the study, some participants were reminded of their own death, while others were reminded of things unrelated to death.
The purpose of the study is to remind people of their mortality, which the researchers hoped would cause them to strive harder in their belief system and to live up to those values, Greenberg said.
As humans we know we are going to die, Greenberg said, but non-human animals are not aware of their impending death.
“We had to develop some sort of belief system that would convince us that we’re not doomed to just perish,” Greenberg said.
- Follow Maggie Driver @Maggie_Driver