Mortality priming modulates children preferences

What reason do we have to fight through struggles when we know that we will one day die? Terror management theory (TMT) posits that when people experience existential angst they will mitigate this angst in a number of predictable ways. Wisman and Goldenberg (2005) examine the evidence for one surprising prediction for TMT: when primed to consider their own mortality, people will show a preference for more children to reduce angst by gaining symbolic or genetic “immortality.”

The researchers primed to think of death by asking subjects to describe their emotions surrounding death and imaging their own death, as opposed to control questions about TV shows. Although women who had been primed to think of death showed no significant increase in number of desired children, men did: they preferred a mean of 2.00 with an SD of 0.87 in the control condition and 2.78 with an SD of 0.82 in the death primed condition, which was a significant interaction in the ANOVA, p = 0.006.

Previous research has found that when primed for death people show no extra desire for the physical connection of sex, so the authors dismissed the explanation of “comfort sex” as a potential confound.

Is this an evolutionarily adaptive mechanism? In some sense it may make sense to prefer more children when death is imminent but there are two problems with this theory:

1) The most adaptive mechanism is to prefer as many children as possible and humans living in more modern cultures simply do not show any indication of wanting this. If our baseline desire for children is not influenced by evolutionary psychology, then why should we expect that any changes in this self-reported value would be?

2) If it were an adaptive mechanism, why would it work for men but not women?

TMT has a good explanation for this discrepancy: women can also subjugate existential angst through career success, and they are cognizant of the fact that children may stifle their career success. So while children lead to immortality in one pathway they may hinder the quest for it through their careeer.

Men, who traditionally have had less trouble balancing family with career success, do not see this discrepancy and therefore see more children as a net positive in dimishing their existential angst. The evolutionary psychological explanation, on the other hand, is less able to explain away this discrepancy.


Wisman A, Goldenberg JL. 2005 From the grave to the cradle: evidence that mortality salience engenders a desire for offspring. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89:46-61.