Terror Management Theory and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Tom Pyszczynski, McKenzie Lockett, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

183 Scopus citations


Terror management theory is focused on the role that awareness of death plays in diverse aspects of life. Here, we discuss the theory’s implications for understanding the widely varying ways in which people have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. We argue that regardless of whether one consciously believes that the virus is a major threat to life or only a minor inconvenience, fear of death plays an important role in driving one’s attitudes and behavior related to the virus. We focus on the terror management theory distinction between proximal defenses, which are activated when thoughts of death are in current focal attention and are logically related to the threat at hand, and distal defenses, which are activated when thoughts of death are on the fringes of one’s consciousness and entail the pursuit of meaning, personal value, and close relationships. We use this framework to discuss the many ways in which COVID-19 undermines psychological equanimity, the diverse ways people have responded to this threat, and the role of ineffective terror management in psychological distress and disorder that may emerge in response to the virus.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)173-189
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Humanistic Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • COVID-19
  • death anxiety
  • existential psychology
  • mental health
  • self-esteem
  • social unrest
  • terror management theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science


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