The prospect of death does not necessarily leave people feeling hopelessly mortal but depends rather on afterlife belief, suggests new research from psychologists at the University of Kent.
Dr Arnaud Wisman and Dr Nathan Heflick, of the University's School of Psychology, set out to establish in four separate studies whether people lose hope when thinking about death - known as Terror Management Theory - under a range of different conditions.
The research was based on the premise that self-awareness among humans has been shown to create the potential for hope - or the general expectation and feeling that future desired outcomes will occur.
Paradoxically however, this self-awareness, which is thought to be unique to humans, also renders them conscious of their own mortality - known as mortality salience. The psychologists found that mortality salience affected feelings of hope among people with high and low self-esteem in different ways.
Researchers first established that mortality reduced personal hope for people low in self-esteem, but not for people high in self-esteem. However, afterlife beliefs helped to preserve hope, even among those with low esteem who experience hopelessness when faced with the prospect of their own mortality.
In two studies, the team tested to see if 'immortality' would help people with low self-esteem remain hopeful when thinking about death. In one, half the participants read a (bogus) statement indicating that scientists are convinced that there is life after death or a statement arguing that there is no life after death.
In the second, the researchers required that people read either a (bogus) statement that there was an identified gene that promises greatly elongated life, or a statement arguing that no such gene has been identified.
Both promises of immortality (life after death or elongated life on earth) preserved hope for people with low self-esteem when they had just thought about their own death.
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Notes to editors
Established in 1965, the University of Kent - the UK's European university - now has almost 20,000 students across campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome.
Kent has been ranked: top 10 for overall student satisfaction in the 2013 National Student Survey; 20th in the 2014 and 2015 Guardian University Guide; 28th in the Sunday Times University League Table 2013; and 22nd in the Complete University Guide 2015.
Kent is ranked 17th in the UK for research intensity (REF 2014), it has world-leading research in all subjects and 97% of its research is deemed by the REF to be of international quality.
Along with the universities of East Anglia and Essex, Kent is a member of the Eastern Arc Research Consortium.
The University is worth £0.6 billion to the economy of the South East, with its students contributing £211 million to that total, and directly or indirectly supports almost 6,800 jobs in the region (source: Viewforth Consulting 2009-10).
In 2014 it received its second Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.