Study finds link between vivid thoughts of death and authenticity

Being able to vividly recall experiences related to your own mortality may cause you to be more fully engaged in life, according to research published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

The research, which included 457 participants, found a link between authenticity and the vividness of experiences that made them think about mortality. People who were better able to vividly recall death-related experiences tended to also be more authentic, meaning they were more likely to feel true to themselves and less likely to be influenced by the opinions of others.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Elizabeth Seto of Texas A&M University. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Seto: In society, there is a pervasive idea that being your true, authentic self is the key to leading a happy, meaningful life. However, we do not know too much about the experiences that help us feel in touch with our true selves. Interestingly, existential philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, suggest that an important antecedent to authenticity may be rooted in the ways we contemplate death. I wanted to examine this notion empirically, so I conducted several studies asking participants to think about their experiences with death, and interestingly, those who were able to recall these experiences more vividly, perceived being more authentic.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Different types of death reflection can give rise to feelings of authenticity. In my studies, I found that the subjective vividness of mortality-related memories — for example, being able to recall a close encounter with death with a lot of visual and perceptual detail — predicted greater feelings of authenticity and behavioral expressions of authenticity such as the pursuit of important goals and intrinsic aspirations. I believe that contemplations about death may seem debilitating at times, but how we think about death can be related to positive psychological outcomes.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

One important caveat to consider is that the possibility that these highly vivid memories may not entirely be accurate. Sometimes, people fill in details of memories or memories can be modified to fit into a person’s life narrative. Regardless, the robust relationship between the perceived vividness of the mortality-evoking memory and authenticity is still intriguing.

A major question that still needs to be addressed is why do we see a relationship between the vividness of morality-evoking memories and authenticity. It is important to note that our research does not clarify a mechanism underlying this relationship, although my colleagues and I propose that an experience with mortality may be a significant event in a person’s life story serving to propel a movement towards authenticity (based on perspectives from the narrative identity literature). There is also the possibility that the vividness of the memory serves as an availability heuristic such that when an encounter with death comes to mind in vivid detail, it can profoundly affect one’s goals and aspirations.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The ways we contemplating death can have both positive and negative relationships with authenticity. In my research, I identified a key component of mortality-evoking memories—subjective vividness—that is associated with positive consequences of death reflection. However, in exploratory analyses, I found that death rumination is negatively related to authenticity. That is, pervasive thoughts about death are associated with feeling less authentic. This research suggests that Martin Heidegger and other existential philosophers’ beliefs are generally supported, but not without the occasional exception.

The study, “The association between vivid thoughts of death and authenticity“, was also co-authored by Joshua A. Hicks, Matthew Vess and Lisa Geraci.