People who are prone to questioning their belief system tend to have reduced levels of self-esteem after being reminded of death, according to research published in Religion, Brain & Behavior.

The study was based on terror management theory, which holds that humans’ awareness of their own mortality is a strong motivator for many behaviors.

“Although terror management theory (TMT) has long been interested in the role of religiosity in managing existential anxieties, quest-oriented persons have been largely ignored,” said study author Robert B. Arrowood of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Quest religiosity describes a orientation of continually questioning one’s own belief system and accepting that it is unlikely there will ever be a definite answer.

“Whereas Christian participants increase their belief in supernatural agents (e.g., God, Jesus) and an afterlife when death concerns are salient, quest persons internalize a state of openness and uncertainty in their worldviews,” Arrowood explained. “In other words, these individuals become more certain in their uncertainty. It is this inconsistency that leads me to want to understand how mortality awareness affects quest persons’ well-being (e.g., spiritual, emotional, psychological, physical, and so on).”

In the study, 95 undergraduate students were randomly assigned to write about either their own death or dental pain. The researchers found that participants who scored higher on a measure of quest religiosity tended to have lower self-esteem than those low in quest religiosity after being reminded of their mortality.

Among those who wrote about dental pain, on the other hand, participants high and low in quest religiosity did not differ in self-esteem scores.

“Individual differences in religion can shape how people respond to extrinsic stimuli, including mortality salience. Given the many death-related themes of spirituality (e.g., afterlife, supernatural), persons are affected differently, which may have consequences for their well-being,” Arrowood told PsyPost.

“For example, my colleagues and I have found that high quest persons are less effective in managing existential concerns, leading to poorer mental health outcomes. It seems important to be aware of these potential pitfalls.”

A little over half of the participants identified as Christian, and nearly a quarter considered themselves to be atheist, agnostic, or non-religious. The results of the study were still statistically significant after controlling for individuals’ religious orientation.

“Understanding the mechanisms (e.g., presence & search for meaning; openness to experience) that lead quest persons to experience lower well-being, both in general and following death awareness, is only beginning to be understood by researchers. Additionally, in my lab, we are currently trying to understand compensatory defenses (e.g., religious doubts) that quest persons engage in to stave off the threat of mortality,” Arrowood said.

“Death is a powerful motivator of everyday life. Although we often do not recognize its influence, much of our behaviors, beliefs, and cognitions stem from an implicit need to deny the inevitability of mortality. In following up this study, we are beginning to understand the role of doubts to achieve a degree of symbolic immortality.”

The study, “Death, quest, and self-esteem: re-examining the role of self-esteem and religion following mortality salience“, was authored by Robert B. Arrowood, Thomas J. Coleman III, Sally B. Swanson, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Cathy R. Cox.