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Omega, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1974. pp. 311-315.

DEATH ANXIETY AND DEATH ACCEPTANCE: A PRELIMINARY APPROACH



J. J. Ray and J. Najman

University of New South Wales

ABSTRACT

Death acceptance is not necessarily the opposite of death anxiety. The two could in fact correlate positively. A third category of "death denial" should also be considered. A new scale to measure death acceptance was devised. It was found to be reliable and, in a group of students, correlated positively (rs = .242 and .263) with two existing death anxiety scales. People can therefore accept death and be anxious about it at the same time. Religious unbelievers were found to be death-acceptant and females death-anxious. There was no relation between death attitudes and achievement motivation.


INTRODUCTION

What is the opposite of being anxious about death? Is it simply the absence of anxiety or is it a positive coming to terms with death? There would after all, appear to be some differences between those who simply shut out all thought of death, those who fear death and know it, and those who have devoted some thought and effort to coming to terms with death and have in fact succeeded in accepting it without anxiety. In fact we might postulate that these three categories of attitudes form a continuum from rejection to acceptance. Since death is in fact inevitable, accepting it might be the best we can do. Not only do we thereby avoid the anxiety associated with fear but we would probably be in such circumstances best able to provide and prepare for death.

With the exception of Swenson [1] previous work seems to have dealt with such distinctions only in a rather cursory way. The only two fear of death scales that have actually appeared in print are those by Templer [2] and Sarnoff and Corwin [3]. Both are Likert type scales. Durlak [4] has listed some other scales known to exist, including a Thurstone type scale by Lester [5] . Both the Sarnoff and Corwin [3] and Templer [2] scales contain a preponderance of death anxiety items. The remaining (reverse-scored) items consist rather of denying fear of death rather than affirming positive attitudes towards death. Obviously, with such scales we would have little prospect of sorting out death-deniers (the first and we might suggest least adaptive of our three categories) from death-acceptors (the last and most adaptive of our three categories). If we had such people in our sample all we would know would be that they did not fall into our death-anxiety (Middle) category. We could be confusing highly adaptive with highly maladaptive attitudes.

The present study reports the construction of a new scale in Likert format designed to tap death-acceptant attitudes. A Likert format was preferred because the varying scale values of Thurstone scales need to be examined in a separate study for each sample the scale is applied to. In the Likert format, on the other hand, any single application of the scale yields sufficient data for an item analysis to be carried out; and from the results of such an analysis one can see whether any item is failing to perform as expected. One can then proceed to delete such an item from consideration without having to discard subjects just because they chose it to represent their attitude.

The case of death-denying attitudes, on the other hand, is not so easily dealt with. To ask people to admit that they are denying worrying about death is almost a contradiction in terms. In the circumstances it was thought that the best way of getting at attitudes of denial seemed to be by use of the well-known California "F" scale. This scale was proposed by its authors [6] as being sensitive to many forms of projection and impulse denial and it seems reasonable that it might be useful in the present context also.

The theory then is that death acceptant people will be able to acknowledge some anxiety about death. They will not deny that it does concern them but will also be able to be positive about death. In operational terms, this will translate to a hypothesis that death anxiety and death acceptance, instead of being mutually exclusive or opposites (highly negatively correlated) will be only mildly opposed (low negative correlation) or not opposed at all (orthogonal). Secondly, some of the people who deny death anxiety will be "deniers" in the Freudian sense -- people who do feel anxiety but cannot acknowledge it. Operationally this translates to the hypothesis that they will be high scorers on the California "F" scale. If this is so, there should be a low positive correlation between death denial indices and the "F" scale.

The work published by Swenson [ 1 ] differs from the present work in that he appears to assume that a person falls into one category or the other -- he is either death-evasive, death-acceptant or death-fearing and that is that. This denies the possibility of a positive correlation between any of the scales. By contrast, the present work makes clearer allowance for a person having mixed attitudes -- and it is surely mixed attitudes that we would normally expect in most people. Swenson also appears to have attempted to measure evasive attitudes directly -- which must have certain validity problems. We would suggest that the very fact of raising the topic with a person undermines his evasion.

METHOD

A questionnaire was made up consisting of the fifteen item Templer scale, the five item Sarnoff and Corwin scale and a group of seven new items designed to measure death acceptance. The items of the new scale are given as follows:

1. Since you only do it once death should at least be interesting.
2. I know that I have nothing to fear when I die.
3. Death is not something terrible.
4. Death is a friend.
5. Death is a good thing because it leaves the way clear for younger men to have their chance.
6. To fear pain makes sense but death is merely a relief from pain.
7. People who worry about death must have nothing better to do.

Also included were the balanced version of the California "F" scale by Ray [7] and a revised version [8] of the Ray-Lynn [9] achievement orientation scale. The latter scale was included for the sake of comparing correlations obtained from the new scale with correlations obtained from other scales on previous occasions. There is in fact a variety of previous work indicating a rather surprising lack of any relationship between death attitudes and achievement orientation. The theoretically expected result, of course, is that achievement orientation should be quite strongly associated with negative attitudes toward death [10] . It was felt that the new scale might show different results to previous ones-results more in line with theory.

Finally, a range of socio-demographic questions were also included in the questionnaire.

The questionnaire was administered to a large class (n = 206) of first year Sociology students (83 males, 123 females). While results obtained from students cannot of course be generalized to other populations, it was felt that such results do enable at least a preliminary examination of the hypotheses and distinctions here proposed, as well as allowing us to test the new items and compare them to the established ones.

RESULTS

The new scale proved highly homogeneous. All items correlated with the scale total (after overlap correction) at a level of significance less than .005 (two-tailed). This gave a reliability ("alpha") of .58. By contrast the Sarnoff and Corwin scale showed a reliability of .48 and the Templer scale a reliability of .74. Low reliabilities are in the present case entirely a reflection of scale length. The index of scale adequacy which is independent of scale length is the mean inter-item correlation and this was in fact identical (at .162) for the new scale and the (longer) Templer scale. The comparable figure for the Sarnoff and Corwin scale (of only 5 items) was .158. It may be concluded therefore that the concept of a separate death acceptance variable has shown itself at least as viable as earlier conceptions of attitudes in this area.

When all variables in the survey were intercorrelated, it was found that the hypothesis of a low negative correlation between death acceptance and death anxiety was supported. The Templer scale and the death acceptance scale correlated only -.263 and the Sarnoff and Corwin scale correlated with death acceptance -.242. By contrast, the Templer and Sarnoff and Corwin scales correlated .612 with one another. This latter correlation can be interpreted to say that the two scales concerned provide concurrent (or "convergent") validation for one another as measures of death anxiety.

The second hypothesis -- that "F" scale scores will correlate positively with the two death anxiety scales was not confirmed. Both correlations were non-significant and negative in sign. This was also true for the correlation with the death acceptance scale.

The third hypothesis -- that achievement motivation would relate to death acceptance was also not confirmed. The correlation was again non-significant and negative in sign.

The only significant relationship between demographic variables and death acceptance was one that was very much to be expected from previous work: It was found that religious unbelievers were more acceptant of death than religious believers. (Chi squared = 16.09 with d.f. of 6.) Compare Chasin [11 ] . The two death anxiety scales showed no significant relationship with religion.

The only significant relationship between demographic variables and the death anxiety scales was a slight but significant tendency for males to be less anxious than females (rs =-.177 and -.167; p < .05). The sexes did not differ in scores on death acceptance.

Because students consist of a homogeneous occupational group, no attempt to look at socioeconomic status as a predictor of attitudes could be made with the present data.

DISCUSSION

The viability of the death acceptance scale as a separate concept has now been established. Additionally, it has enabled us to show the assumption by Swenson [1] and others that death acceptance is the categorical opposite of death anxiety to be false. People who accept death may still feel some anxiety about it. They appear to be simply people who can take a realistic view of death and even see positive aspects of it.

Generally then it might be suggested that any study of the fears of death a group may have should clearly distinguish between differing aspects of these fears. Further, it is our intention to proceed with a study of the behavioral manifestations of such fears as they relate to attitudes people have. It is our feeling that any adequate theory of death behavior must be able to reconcile the micro level of activity (attitudes, motives etc.) with the macro organization of the group or culture, a point of view strongly supported by Chasin [11].

Another finding of our study was that denial of death anxiety definitely did not tend to go with proneness to the neurotic sort of denial described by Freud and others. This failure was however not altogether surprising. Although widely used, the California "F" scale has been subject to severe criticism for not measuring what it purports to measure [ 12].

The other hypothesis not confirmed (that death anxiety would correlate with need for achievement) might be more usefully examined using another sample. It could be suggested that students demonstrate a higher achievement motivation than the rest of the population and that therefore there is not the range of achievement motivations that might be required positively to support the hypothesis. Alternately, as Lester [10] suggests, it might be more appropriate to correlate these scales in an older population where thoughts of death are associated with firmer goals and commitments. Certainly the use of such scales or student populations rather than on representative sample populations represents a serious inadequacy.

Clearly there is a need to relate death behavior (either of oneself or in relation to dying others) to a more general theoretical approach. The scales tested in this study are only one aspect of such an approach. It is our feeling that a combination of attitudinal items, behavior-reporting items and sociodemographic characteristics on a wider sample population may be necessary in providing the clarification of relationships which would allow an adequate theory to be set up.

REFERENCES

1. Swenson, W. M. and Fulton, R. L. Death and identity, NY: Wiley, 1965.

2. Templer, D. The construction and validation of a death anxiety scale. J. of General Psychology, 1970, 82, 165-177.

3. Sarnoff, I. and Corwin, S. Castration anxiety and the fear of death. J. Pers., 1959, 27, 375-385, 1959.

4. Durlak, J. A. Measurement of the fear of death: An examination of some existing scales. J. Clin. Psych., 1972, Vol. 28.4, 545-547.

5. Lester, D. Experimental and correlational studies of the fear of death. Psychol. Bulletin, 1967, 67, 27-36.

6. Adorno, T. W. et al. The Authoritarian Personality, NY: Harper, 1950.

7. Ray, J.J. (1972) A new balanced F scale -- And its relation to social class. Australian Psychologist 7, 155-166.

8. Ray, J.J. (1980) The comparative validity of Likert, projective and forced-choice indices of achievement motivation. J. Social Psychology, 111, 63-72.

9. Ray, J.J. (1970) Christianism.... The Protestant ethic among unbelievers. J. Christian Education, 13, 169-176.

10. Lester, D. The need to achieve and the fear of death. Psychological Reports, 1970, 27, 516.

11. Chasin, B. Neglected variables in the study of death attitudes. Sociological Quarterly, 12 (Winter 1971), 107-113.

12. Titus, H. E. "F" scale validity considered against peer nomination criteria. Psych. Record, 1968, 18, 395-403.

POST-PUBLICATION ADDENDUM

A sequel to the above article is available as under:

Ray, J.J. & Najman, J.M. (1987) Neoconservatism, mental health and attitude to death. Personality & Individual Differences, 8, 277-279.






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