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Death Wish

published June 2016
What would be your final words?
magazine cover

Between December 7, 1982, and February 16, 2016, the state of Texas executed 534 inmates, 417 of whom issued a last statement. This January in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, psychologists Sarah Hirschmüller and Boris Egloff, both at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany, published the results of their evaluation of most of the statements, which they put through a computerized text-analysis program called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. The biggest finding was a statistically significant difference between the average percentage of positive emotion words (9.64) and negative ones (2.65). Is that a lot?

To find out, the psychologists compared this dataset with a broad spectrum of written sources, including scientific articles, novels, blogs and diaries, consisting of more than 168 million words composed by 23,173 people. The mean of 2.74 percent positive emotion words for each entry was statistically significantly lower than that of the prisoners. In fact, these death-row inmates were more positive than students asked to contemplate their own death and write down their thoughts and even more positive than people who attempted or completed suicides and left notes. What does this mean?

Hirschmüller and Egloff contend that their data support terror management theory (TMT), which asserts that the realization of our mortality leads to unconscious terror, and “an increased use of positive emotion words serves as a way to protect and defend against mortality salience of one’s own contemplated death.” But if that were so, then why the difference between the inmates’ statements and those of suicide attempters and completers? Surely those about to kill themselves would be equally terrorized by the prospect of their imminent self-demise.

Context is key here. “Change the context slightly, and one often gets very different results in research on human behavior,” University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Frank J. Sulloway told me by e-mail when I queried him about TMT. “The really tricky thing with theories like this is not what to do with statistical refutations but rather what to do with supposed statistical confirmations. This problem previously arose in connection with psychoanalysis, and [German-born psychologist] Hans Eysenck and others later wrote books showing that those zealous psychoanalytic devotees testing their psychoanalytic claims systematically failed to consider what other theories, besides the one researchers thought they were testing, would also be confirmed by the same evidence.”

An alternative to TMT is one we might call emotional priority theory (EPT). Facing death focuses one’s mind on the most important emotions in life, two of which are love and forgiveness. Love is an emotional feature of human nature so potent it can be tracked with neurochemical correlates such as oxytocin and dopamine. In fact, as Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher argues in the revised edition of Anatomy of Love (W. W. Norton, 2016), love is so powerful an emotion it can be addictive, like chocolate and cocaine.

In this alternative context of EPT, I conducted my own content analysis of all 417 death-row final statements. I found that 44 percent either apologized for their crimes or asked for forgiveness from the families present at the execution and that 70 percent included effusive love language. For example:

  • To my family, to my mom, I love you.
  • I appreciate everybody for their love and support. You all keep strong, thank you for showing me love and teaching me how to love.
  • I want to tell my sons I love them; I have always loved them.
  • I would like to extend my love to my family members and my relatives for all of the love and support you have showed me.
  • As the ocean always returns to itself, love always returns to itself.

Not only were these men not terrorized at the prospects of death, 40 percent of them said they were looking forward to the next life in expressions like “going home,” “going to a better place” and “I’ll be there waiting for you.” TMT proponents counter that the terror is unconscious, revealed by expressions of positive emotions and afterlife beliefs. But is it not more prudent to presume that people say what they truly feel and believe in the seconds before their death and then prioritize those emotions and thoughts by what matters most? What would you say?

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10 Comments to “Death Wish”

  1. Janice Muir Says:

    I suspect that TMT may have more validity when the expectation of death is sudden and surprising whereas EPT is more likely when there is a delay and, thus, time to reflect upon and adjust to the idea of death. People on death row and people who attempt (or complete) suicide have some time to overcome their anger and denial and to accept their mortality. People confronting armed assailants or sudden catastrophes do not have that luxury.

    When I was in university, I worked as a nurse aide and was often assigned to terminally ill patients facing imminent death. The vast majority of them seemed to be calm and accepting of what was to come. They frequently related stories of significant past events in their lives, expressed appreciation for significant people, pets or activities and talked about their expectations for after death. They all thanked me for listening and for not insisting they would get well which, apparently, many of the other caregivers did.

    On the other hand, I sometimes claim that the only reason I survived being struck by lightning was so my last words would not be “Oh sh**”.

    (Please forgive the ramble, I’m still on interesting pain meds.)

  2. Dave Rockwell Says:

    According to the Wiki, these are the last words of Epicurus:

    “I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.”

    I see no evidence here of unconscious terror; this man did not anticipate life after death, and had spent his life contemplating the question, among others. (He is one of my heroes, if only because I have also had kidney stones, and his presence of mind while dying of them seems little short of superhuman to me.)

    I think that hypothesizing a universal unconscious terror of death is adding an unnecessary ‘entity’ – not recommended by good old Occam.

  3. lane rand Says:

    THX, Dave R. for the Epicurian quote. I was reminded of the response of Ramana Maharshi, perhaps the greatest sage of the past century, when told he had cancer in his right arm: “Poor arm”. Truly spiritual people enjoy the freedom from negative emotions that comes with detachment. Shermer’s essay tells us little about these types of persons and how they live joyfully every day once they’ve overcome the fear of impermanence.

  4. Jim Says:

    I’m 87 years old. When I know I’m going to die very soon, my last words will be, “Free at last.”

  5. Bill Says:

    If given the opportunity, my final words would be, “I hope I’m wrong, but I seldom am.”

  6. Dan Belden Says:

    One I heard on a gravestone was; “I told you I was sick!”

  7. BobM Says:

    Hopefully my last words will be something other than “Bugger!”

  8. Jack Says:

    I go to seek a great Perhaps.

  9. Berni Says:

    As a sceptic surrounded by fundamentalist family and friends I leave behind these words without thanatophobia; “I am back wence I came, recycled chemical elements; please join me in the eternal afterlife of non existence by connecting memories of love for all that was and is alive”

  10. Varghese Says:

    we may have an “immortal wish turned gene” in us deluding us to believe in

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