Black humour perks up the inevitable

Time magazine has a short article on an interesting finding: after thinking about their own death, participants in a psychology study were more likely to respond unconsciously in ways that suggested a boost in mood.

The study was led by psychologist Nathan DeWall and asked one group of students to think about a painful dental procedure, and another about their own death.

The participants were then asked to complete questionnaires that rated their mood. In terms of their conscious reporting, there was no difference between the groups.

However, when asked to do some simple tasks that are known to be affected by unconscious emotional biases, the group who had thought about death showed a consistently positive effect:

Students in the death-and-dying group, it turns out, had all gone to their happy place ‚Äî at least in their unconscious. There was no difference in scores between the groups on the explicit tests of emotion and affect. But in the implicit tests of nonconscious emotion ‚Äî the wordplay ‚Äî researchers found that the students who were preoccupied with death tended to generate significantly more positive-emotion words and word matches than the dental-pain group. DeWall thinks this mental coping response kicks in immediately when confronted with a serious psychological threat. In subsequent research, he has analyzed the content of the volunteers’ death essays and found that they’re sprinkled with positive words. “When you ask people, ‘Describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you,'” says DeWall, “people will report fear and contempt, but also happiness that ‘I’m going to see my grandmother’ and joy that ‘I’m going to be with God.'”

I would like to think that this will come as welcome news to the people who protested against a funeral parlour being built near their homes because of concerns about a ‘negative psychological impact’, although, I suspect it will be of little comfort.

Experimental evidence is remarkably unconvincing to some.

It reminds me of when Tom Gilovich did an analysis of the ‘hot hand’ in professional basketball (where players who have scored several points are supposedly ‘on a run’). His study [pdf], published in the journal Cognitive Psychology, found that the effect was just the misperception of random variation.

When asked about the research, Red Auerbach, coach of the Boston Celtics, reportedly responded “Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less”.

Another example of the fly of empirical evidence being crushed against the windscreen of self-confidence. Well, at least Stephen Colbert would be proud.

Link to Time article ‘Are We Happier Facing Death?’.

3 thoughts on “Black humour perks up the inevitable”

  1. Greetings from Patzcuaro! Dia de los Muertos seems to be a healthy meditation on death / life. Perhaps when the veil is thinned between living and dead, the dialogue helps to understand other shadows.

  2. Also, Tibetan Buddhism has meditation on death as a fundamental component. It is said to be the meditation that leaves the deepest impression upon the mind.
    The effect of the meditation is not only to develop an acceptance of the inevitable, but to let the realisation that the time death is uncertain to move our mind from a sluggish depressed state into a more positive, ‘carpe diem’, mode.
    ‘I may die today’, say it 108 times and see how you feel 🙂

  3. With all the recent conversation about emotion, you might like to check out what the Exploratorium in San Francisco is doing. Their new exhibit, MIND, tries in part to have people experience their own emotions (and the tension between emotion and reason)in different ways. Here are descriptions of the exhibits:
    The exhibition will be on view from November 9, 2007 through December 31, 2008.

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