Welcome, dear readers, to a mind-bending adventure into the labyrinth of the human psyche. We’re going to embark on an odyssey through the catacombs of cognition, the jungles of the subconscious, and a wild ride into the boundless depths of human behavior—with four psychological theories as our guide.
Because psychology isn’t just a series of dry, academic theories locked away in some dusty textbook, reserved for bespectacled professors in ivory towers. It’s an exploration into the enigmatic workings of our minds, a quest to unravel our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It’s about understanding the secrets that make us tick, and more importantly, it’s about discovering what makes us human.
Here are four psychological theories that help us do just that. Buckle up because this first one isn’t just fascinating, it’s also kind of, well, terrifying.
Table of Contents
Terror Management Theory
Terror Management Theory, in a nutshell, is a psychological theory stating that awareness of our own mortality is one of the fundamental drivers of human behavior.1
You see, unlike dogs, monkeys or rats, humans are unique in that we have the cognitive ability to understand that we are going to die someday. And let’s be honest, that’s a pretty terrifying thought.
So, what do we do to cope with this terrifying realization? We create cultural systems of meaning and value that help us feel like we’re part of something greater than ourselves.
These cultural systems can take many forms, such as religion,2 political ideologies, and social norms. They provide us with a sense of purpose and significance, and they help us believe that our lives have meaning beyond just our own individual existence.
But here’s the thing: when these cultural systems are threatened or challenged, it can trigger a deep sense of existential terror.
Suddenly, the fragile veneer of meaning that we’ve constructed to protect ourselves from the reality of our mortality is shattered, and we’re forced to confront the fact that our lives are finite and perhaps meaningless.
This is where things can get really interesting (or really disturbing, depending on how you look at it). In order to cope with this terror, people will often engage in a variety of defensive strategies, such as becoming more entrenched in their beliefs,3 denigrating those who don’t share their beliefs, or even resorting to violence to protect their cultural worldview.
In other words, when our sense of meaning and purpose is threatened, we become much more rigid in our thinking and behavior. We become less tolerant of differences and more prone to aggression and violence.
Now, before you go throwing up your hands and declaring that all humans are just a bunch of nihilistic, violent monsters, it’s worth noting that there are plenty of positive ways to cope with the realization of our mortality.4 For example, many people find that cultivating a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the present moment can help them feel more connected to the world around them. Others may find comfort in the knowledge that their actions can have a positive impact on future generations.
The bottom line is this: Terror Management Theory may seem like a dark and depressing topic, but it can actually shed a lot of light on the ways that we as humans strive to find meaning and purpose in a world that can sometimes seem bleak and meaningless.
By understanding the ways that we cope with our mortality, we can begin to develop more positive and life-affirming strategies for dealing with the existential terror that is an inevitable part of the human experience.
In fact, simply practicing the stoic concept of memento mori, or, “remember that you will die,” can help us cultivate a great relationship with our mortality. It’s often when we sit and contemplate our own death consciously, that we’re able to put things in perspective for ourselves.
What the Hell Are You Doing with Your Life?
Post-Traumatic Growth Theory
We all know that trauma sucks. It’s painful, it’s distressing, and it can leave deep scars that last a lifetime. But here’s the thing: it’s not always all bad. In fact, some people actually experience personal growth and transformation in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
This might seem counterintuitive, but it’s backed up by a growing body of psychological research. Post-traumatic growth theory suggests that people who experience trauma can actually come out the other side stronger and more resilient than before. They may develop a greater appreciation for life, a deeper sense of purpose and meaning, and a stronger sense of connection with others.5
Now, let’s be clear: this doesn’t mean that trauma is something that we should seek out or that it’s somehow good for us. But it does mean that even in the midst of our darkest moments, there is the potential for growth and transformation.
So, how does this work? Well, it’s not exactly a straightforward process. In fact, it can be messy, unpredictable, and sometimes painful. But here are a few of the key ingredients that can contribute to post-traumatic growth:
- First, there’s the concept of “disruption.” Trauma can shake us out of our complacency and force us to reevaluate our priorities and our beliefs. It can be a wake-up call that forces us to confront the reality of our mortality and to reassess what’s really important in life.6
- Second, there’s the idea of “meaning-making.” People who experience post-traumatic growth often find ways to make sense of their experience and to integrate it into their personal narrative. They may find new sources of meaning and purpose in life, or they may feel a renewed sense of connection to others.7
- Finally, there’s the concept of “resilience.” People who experience post-traumatic growth are often able to bounce back from adversity and to use their experience as a source of strength and resilience. They may develop a greater sense of self-efficacy and a belief in their ability to overcome challenges.8
Now, it’s worth noting that post-traumatic growth is not a guarantee. Not everyone who experiences trauma will experience growth and transformation as a result.
But it is a reminder that even in our darkest moments, there is the potential for light and growth. It’s a testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity and to find meaning and purpose even in the face of profound pain and suffering.
So, to all of you out there who have experienced trauma: know that you are not alone, and that there is the potential for growth and transformation on the other side. It won’t be easy, but it is possible. And that, my friends, is something worth holding onto.
Life History Theory
According to Life History Theory, all organisms have finite resources at their disposal, and they need to allocate those resources in a way that maximizes their reproductive success.9
In other words, they need to figure out how to have as many babies as possible, while also ensuring that those babies survive to reproduce themselves.
Here’s where things get interesting: Different organisms have different strategies for allocating their resources. Some organisms, like trees or tortoises, invest heavily in growth and development early in life, and then slow down and conserve their resources later on. Other organisms, like rabbits or mice, invest less in growth and development early on, and then reproduce early and often.
So, where do humans fit into all of this? Well, according to Life History Theory, humans are what’s known as a “variable life history strategy” species. In other words, we’re pretty flexible in terms of how we allocate our resources over time.
Some humans may follow a slow life history strategy, investing heavily in education, career, and personal development before settling down and having children. Others may follow a fast life history strategy, having children early and often and focusing less on long-term planning and delayed gratification.
Now, this might all seem a bit abstract, but here’s where things get really interesting. Life History Theory can help explain a whole range of human behaviors and traits, from risk-taking to mate selection to socialization.
For example, humans who follow a fast life history strategy may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drug use or reckless driving, because they have less to lose in the long run. They may also be more likely to choose partners based on physical attractiveness, since that is a signal of reproductive fitness.
On the other hand, humans who follow a slow life history strategy may be more likely to choose partners based on intelligence or ambition, since those traits are more likely to contribute to long-term reproductive success. They may also be more risk-averse and less likely to engage in dangerous behaviors, since they have more to lose in the long run.
It’s worth noting that Life History Theory is not a one-size-fits-all explanation for human behavior—no psychological theory is. It’s a complex and nuanced theory that is still being researched and debated by evolutionary psychologists.
But it is a reminder that human behavior is not just a product of our individual choices or circumstances. It is shaped by our evolutionary history, and by the strategies that we have developed over time to maximize our reproductive success.
Life History Theory may not be the most feel-good topic out there, but it can help shed light on some of the most fundamental aspects of human behavior. And that, my friends, is something worth paying attention to.
If you’re even a little familiar with my work, you’ll know that I lean heavily on Attachment Theory to explain a lot of how relationships work—or don’t work.
Attachment theory is all about one of the most fundamental human experiences out there: our need for emotional connection.
At its core, attachment theory is about the bonds that form between infants and their caregivers. According to attachment theory, these bonds are crucial for a child’s emotional and social development. Infants who have a secure attachment to their caregivers are more likely to feel safe, confident, and capable in their relationships with others throughout their lives.
But here’s where things get really interesting. Attachment theory doesn’t just apply to infants and their caregivers. It can also help us understand the dynamics of adult relationships, and why some people are more successful at forming and maintaining healthy, satisfying partnerships than others.10
According to attachment theory, adults who have a secure attachment style are comfortable with intimacy and are able to form strong emotional bonds with others. They are confident in their ability to communicate their needs and feelings, and they trust that their partners will be there for them when they need support.
On the other hand, adults who have an insecure attachment style may struggle with intimacy and have difficulty forming strong emotional bonds. They may be hesitant to trust others, and may have trouble communicating their needs and feelings in a healthy way.
Now, here’s where things get really interesting. Attachment style isn’t just something that’s hardwired into us from birth. It can also be shaped by our life experiences,11 particularly our early experiences with caregivers.12
For example, if a child’s caregiver is consistently responsive and attentive to their needs, they are more likely to develop a secure attachment style as an adult. But if a child’s caregiver is inconsistent or neglectful, they may develop an insecure attachment style.
The good news is that attachment style is not set in stone. Through therapy and other forms of self-work, it is possible to develop a more secure attachment style and form healthier, more fulfilling relationships.
There you have it—four psychological theories that you may not have heard of before, but that can tell you a lot about your own life. Though, like any model, these theories are necessarily simplifications of a complex reality, they could give you the understanding you needed to make positive changes in your life. You’re welcome.
- Greenberg, J., & Arndt, J. (2011). Terror management theory. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, 1, 398–415.↵
- Vail, K. E., Rothschild, Z. K., Weise, D. R., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (2010). A terror management analysis of the psychological functions of religion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 84–94.↵
- Jonas, E., & Fischer, P. (2006). Terror management and religion: evidence that intrinsic religiousness mitigates worldview defense following mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(3), 553.↵
- Greenberg, J., & Arndt, J. (2011). Terror management theory. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, 1, 398–415.↵
- Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (2014). Handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice. Routledge.↵
- Hefferon, K., Grealy, M., & Mutrie, N. (2009). Post-traumatic growth and life threatening physical illness: A systematic review of the qualitative literature. British Journal of Health Psychology, 14(2), 343–378.↵
- Morrill, E. F., Brewer, N. T., O’Neill, S. C., Lillie, S. E., Dees, E. C., Carey, L. A., & Rimer, B. K. (2008). The interaction of post-traumatic growth and post-traumatic stress symptoms in predicting depressive symptoms and quality of life. Psycho-Oncology, 17(9), 948–953.↵
- Woodward, C., & Joseph, S. (2003). Positive change processes and post-traumatic growth in people who have experienced childhood abuse: Understanding vehicles of change. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 76(3), 267–283.↵
- Figueredo, A. J., et al. (2006). Consilience and life history theory: From genes to brain to reproductive strategy. Developmental Review, 26(2), 243–275.↵
- Allen, J. G., Stein, H., Fonagy, P., Fultz, J., & Target, M. (2005). Rethinking adult attachment: A study of expert consensus. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 69(1), 59–80.↵
- Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Hazan, C. (1994). Attachment styles and close relationships: A four-year prospective study. Personal Relationships, 1(2), 123–142.↵
- Fraley, R. C., & Heffernan, M. E. (2013). Attachment and Parental Divorce: A Test of the Diffusion and Sensitive Period Hypotheses. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(9), 1199–1213.↵