When we see ourselves as mere mortal animals, creative pursuits may help to assuage a fear of death

By Emma Young

How similar do you think humans are to other animals? The answer might reveal more than you think: according to new research, people who perceive themselves as being more similar to other animals are more likely to care about being creative, and to engage with the arts. Why? It’s all to do with how we manage death anxiety, argue Uri Lifshin at Reichman University, Israel, and colleagues, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

We all know that at some point, sooner or later, we are going to die. It’s not exactly an uplifting thought. According to Terror Management Theory, to assuage death anxiety, we created cultural belief systems that allow us to see ourselves as more than mortal animals. Belief in an afterlife and a strong identification with one’s national culture are two such systems. But there are also other ways to get a sense of immortality: by becoming famous, say, or via creative pursuits, which might leave a lasting mark.

To explore individual differences in feeling that people are more than mortal animals, the team used a four-item “perceived similarity of the self to animals” (PSSA) scale. (Participants had to rate “how similar you think you are to other animals”, for example.) And in an initial study on almost 900 American students, they found a correlation between higher PSSA scores and scores on other measures, including being less invested in national identity and feeling that “being creative” was important. Another study on a broader range of American adults found a link between higher PSSA scores and greater engagement with and enjoyment of the arts.

In a subsequent online experiment on 189 Jewish Israeli participants, one group was asked to reflect on their own death, while a control group was asked to think about experiences of physical pain instead. The researchers found that among those with relatively high PSSA scores, those who got the death reminder reported caring more about being creative (about “thinking outside the box”, for example) than those in the control group. They interpret this as supporting the idea that people who think they are more similar to other animals are more motivated to use creativity as a way to manage their death anxiety. I have to note, though, that within the control group, people with low PSSA scores actually reported caring more about creativity than those with higher PSSA scores — contrary to the team’s expectations. And indeed, other results from some further studies were mixed, too. 

The researchers maintain that data from their total of six studies support the idea that seeing ourselves as similar to other animals is directly linked with death anxiety and the pursuit of creativity. This link can’t be explained by other variables including religiosity, personality factors, belief in human evolution and political orientation.

However, statistical trends and marginally significant results do feature pretty heavily in their paper. And in one study, people with higher PSSA scores also scored higher on the personality trait of Openness. More open people are more interested in the arts (among other things), more creative and less conventional — so less likely to adopt a nationalistic or religious belief system. Are high PSSA scores just tapping into Openness, then?

The team thinks that people’s perceived similarity to animals is important in and of itself. “Our findings suggest that PSSA may be an important factor in understanding investment in creativity,” they write. But while it’s an interesting idea, it’s also one that certainly needs more work.

Perceived Similarity of the Self to Animals, Creativity, and Anxiety—: A Terror Management Analysis

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest