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Pondering Death Can Alter Behavior

In what may seem an obvious finding to many, how one thinks about death can affect behavior in life, a new study finds.

"Death is a very powerful motivation," said Laura E.R. Blackie, a Ph.D. student at the University of Essex in Britain. "People seem aware that their life is limited. That can be one of the best gifts that we have in life, motivating us to embrace life and embrace goals that are important to us."

Blackie and her advisor, Philip J. Cozzolino, recruited 90 people in a British town center and asked separated them into three groups. One group was asked to respond to general questions about death – such as their thoughts and feelings about death and what they think happens to them if they die. The other was asked to imagine dying in an apartment fire and then asked four questions about how they thought they would deal with the experience and how they thought their family would react. A control group thought about dental pain.

Next, the participants read an article about blood donations. Some were given an article saying blood donations were "at record highs" and the need was low; others read another article reporting the opposite – that donations were "at record lows" and the need was high. All were then offered a pamphlet guaranteeing fast registration at a blood center that day and told they should only take a pamphlet if they intended to donate.

People who thought about death in the abstract were more likely to take a pamphlet if they read the article about a blood shortage. But people who thought about their own death were likely to take a pamphlet regardless of which article they read — their willingness to donate blood didn't seem to depend on how badly it was needed.

When people think about their demise abstractly, they may be more likely to fear death, while thinking specifically about your own death "enables people to integrate the idea of death into their lives more fully," Blackie said. Thinking about their mortality in a more personal and authentic manner may make them think more about what they value in life.

The findings will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Live Science Staff
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