A terror management analysis of self-awareness and anxiety: The hierarchy of terror

Tom Pyszczynski, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, James Hamilton

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In this article, we apply terror management theory to the operation of self-awareness processes. According to the theory, self-esteem consists ofaccepting a cultural conception of reality and believing that one is living up to the standards of value inherent in that conception. The function of self-esteem is to buffer the anxiety that results from the awareness of human vulnerability and mortality that results from our capacity for selfawareness. We argue that self-awareness leads to comparisons with standards, and to behavior aimed at reducing any discrepancies that are detected, because of the potential for existential terror that selfawareness creates. Existential terror is seen as the emotional manifestation of the instinct for selfpreservation. Management of this terror is conceptualized as the superordinate goal in a hierarchy of standards through which behavior is regulated. A hierarchical terror management model is proposed. This structure provides a unique analysis of the self-system and its relationship to other attitudes, values, and beliefs. The theory posits several dynamic principles that specify how self-awareness and disruptions determine the movement of conscious attention through various levels of the hierarchy. The implications of this analysis for unresolved theoretical questions about sclf-awareness processes, unconscius sources of motivation, and clinical problems are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRoutledge Library Editions
Subtitle of host publicationAnxiety
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781317374688
ISBN (Print)9781138924888
StatePublished - Jan 1 2021


  • Anxiety
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-focused attention
  • Self-regulation
  • Terror management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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