Willie van Peer, Anna Chesnokova, Matthias Springer. Distressful Empathy in Reading Literature: the Case for Terror Management Theory?

(2017) Science and education, 1, 33-41. Odessa.

Willie van Peer,
PhD, Ludwig Maximilian University,
2, Professor-Huber-Platz, Munich, Germany,
Anna Chesnokova,
PhD (Candidate of Philological Sciences),
Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University,
18/2, Bulvarno-Kudriavska Str., Kyiv, Ukraine,
Matthias Springer,
PhD, Ludwig Maximilian University,
2, Professor-Huber-Platz, Munich, Germany



This article investigates the extent to which predictions of Terror Management Theory also hold on reading literature. Indeed, death is ubiquitous in fiction. But does reading about it cause the same reactions as those predicted by Terror Management Theory? To answer this question, five reading experiments were carried out. The hypothesis, developed in the framework of Terror Management Theory, that direct confrontation with one‟s mortality strengthens both prejudices against outsiders and enhances in-group values, was tested. Contrary to initial expectations, the results did not confirm the predictions, casting a shadow over the hypothesis of distressful empathy. This raises the question whether mortality salience in literary texts is different from other such confrontations. This leads us to the question why people indulge in such distressful emotions. It will be argued that confrontation with death in literature may actually relieve the tension produced by mortality reminders. This perspective may be linked to Aristotle‟s notion of catharsis.


empathy, Terror Management Theory, mortality salience, literary texts, non-fictional texts, catharsis.




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