Existential psychologist Cathy Cox studies how we cope with the knowledge of our mortality.
What do ethnic hatred, texting while driving and suntanning have in common? Fear of death, said Cathy Cox, professor of psychology.
Cox thinks about death a lot. Studying how people react to the knowledge that the end is coming is a major focus of her work as an existential psychologist. Influenced by psychologists and philosophers including Freud and Viktor Frankl, the field explores nearly ineffable themes like the hunger for meaning, sense of identity, isolation, freedom of choice and, yes, anticipation of death.
“We’re constantly reminded of our mortality — you can read the newspaper, you can watch television, you just open up an app,” Cox said. “It’s unsettling to people. They don’t want to think about it. So they’ll mask their fear by focusing on other things. … I’m interested in how people deal with [death-related] anxiety and how they create a meaningful and satisfying life for themselves.”
She and her students also scrutinize such seeming abstractions as the despair of ever connecting with others, the impulse to defend one’s country and the power of fond romantic memories. Such experiences can cast psychic shadows that influence everything from relationship bonding to martyrdom.
LONELINESS AND LOVE
Loneliness is unpleasant for the person who feels it. But this feeling of distress about a perceived disconnection from others seems to be bad for intimacy, too.
“Studies show that people who are lonely are less satisfied and committed with their romantic relationship,” said Thomas Sease, a PhD student in experimental psychology. To get at why, he and Cox surveyed online volunteers to try to understand how loneliness might corrode relationship satisfaction.
The feeling may go hand in hand with less mindful awareness, they found — and that could in turn be hard on a couple’s connection.
“Loneliness actually decreases people’s sensitivity to their partner, which then, in turn, decreases relationship well-being,” Sease said. “Think about it in terms of, like, ‘I’m lonely, I’m going to be less attentive to my partner.’ ”
Existential isolation — a feeling of being alone in one’s own experience and inherently unable to connect with others — is different from loneliness.
Julie Swets, also a PhD candidate in experimental psychology, explains it as a feeling “like my experience of the world is not like anyone else’s.”
This profound sense of isolation may be involved with how we navigate major life upheavals. With TCU’s Institute of Behavioral Research, Cox and her team are launching a study to examine whether existential isolation affects the process of recovery among people residing in treatment facilities for substance use disorder.
“What we kind of theorize right now is that existential isolation creates this inherent disconnect between the therapist and the client,” Sease said, “ultimately decreasing engagement, satisfaction, participation and ultimately success.”
If the research finds a link between existential isolation and not sticking to treatment, the discovery could lead to better treatment protocols. Counselors might try highlighting what they and their clients have in common, such as coming from the same small town or both having worked in a restaurant.
“If it just takes knowing that your counselor is having the same experience that you have,” Cox said, “that could lead people to become more engaged.”
TWO FACES OF NOSTALGIA
During Covid, nostalgia was big. Oldies hit top-10 lists on Spotify, while vintage shows like Friends surged in popularity.
“People become nostalgic when they’re dealing with anxiety, when they’re thinking about death, when they’re bored, when they’re lonely — everything that Covid was hitting on,” Cox said.
Nostalgia can help people create a sense of meaning in their lives, she added.
“If you start feeling lonely, if you start feeling bored, if you start feeling some existential kind of threat — any of these kind of negative states,” Swets said, “nostalgia tends to just happen naturally to help you deal.”
Added Sease: “Nostalgia is thought of as a mental health resource associated with positive physical and psychological well-being.”
But nostalgia doesn’t always behave as people might expect. In a pair of studies of internet users as well as TCU students, Swets and Cox surveyed attitudes about relationships, sometimes guiding participants to recall good romantic memories. They found nostalgia could play a role in keeping couples together by blunting feelings of disconnection stemming from conflict. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
“This actually is associated with them wanting to stay in the relationship, kind of forgiving their partner — being more accepting of intimate partner violence within their relationship,” Cox said.
THE DARK SIDE OF COPING
Terror management theory is a realm of existential psychology that examines how people manage feelings and fears about death. The theory suggests that awareness of our own mortality leads us to pursue self-esteem and cultural beliefs as a way to manage the fear.
Cox uses the theory to study a range of behaviors, including political preferences, risk-taking and religious belief.
In one of the field’s classic studies, a group of Iranian students appeared more receptive to martyrdom after being reminded of their mortality, as opposed to a reminder of a grim topic not related to death. Similarly, a group of American students indicated more willingness to bomb and kill civilians in the Middle East after such a prompt.
Wait — so if people are afraid of death, they are more willing to kill others or to become martyrs?
“If it supports our beliefs, yes,” Cox said, “in terms of symbolically achieving that meaning through the destruction of other people.”
Cox built on that study with another in which participants were reminded of the deadly Ebola virus during an outbreak. This unpleasant thought correlated with stronger religious fundamentalism. A similar mechanism might help explain Covid-era political divisiveness and xenophobia.
“Mortality has the potential to make us anxious, and therefore we cling to our beliefs as a way to lessen that anxiety. So if we’re American, we’re more likely to be, like, ‘God bless America!’ ” Cox said. “We support other people who support those beliefs, and we don’t support other people who don’t support those beliefs.
“There’s been hundreds of studies showing that people become more aggressive and more prejudicial and more stereotypical and more racist when death is salient.”
Cox’s studies have tied death reminders to some unexpected behaviors, including plans for a suntan and smoking more. Picture a billboard with an ad on each side: One warns drivers of the mortal risk of texting while driving; the other features a burger restaurant. Picture Cox’s graduate students peering into cars, counting up drivers who texted as they passed.
They found that people were more likely to text and drive after encountering the warning ad, while drivers passing the burger ad texted less. In a laboratory with driving simulators, her team has found similar results.
“We would argue that when death is salient, it actually increases people’s need for close relationships,” she said. In this case, a death reminder could mean wanting to reach out and text someone.
Despite the grim territory of her work, Cox said she relishes it. Sease described his mentor as “very relaxed, doesn’t stress people out.”
“Everybody should aspire to have a profession that they love so much,” Cox said.
BY JENNY BLAIR