In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Denial of Death,” Ernest Becker argues that the basic human motivation is the fear of death. This fear leads us to develop various mechanisms of self-deception, which allow us to deny our mortality and maintain a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable world. While Becker’s book is dense and somewhat technical, it provides a unique and insightful perspective on the phenomenon of self-deception.
Becker’s Theory of Motivation
According to Becker, the fear of death is the root of all human motivation. This may seem like a strange claim at first, but Becker backs it up with a detailed analysis of human behavior. He argues that all human beings have a deep-seated need to feel that their lives have meaning and purpose. This need arises from our awareness of our own mortality; because we are aware that we are going to die, we feel a need to create something that will survive us and give our lives lasting importance.
One way that we try to achieve this is by living up to the expectations of others; we conform to social norms and do what is expected of us in order to be accepted and valued by others. However, this only goes so far in satisfying our need for significance; ultimately, we must also create something that will outlast our individual lives—something that will be remembered after we are gone. This could take the form of children, works of art, or simply acts of kindness and generosity.
The Mechanisms of Self-Deception
In order to achieve these goals—that is, in order to live up to the expectations of others and create something that will outlast us—we rely on various mechanisms of self-deception. These mechanisms allow us to deny our mortality and maintain a sense of control over our lives. Examples of such mechanisms include religion (which offers immortality through eternal life after death), nationalism (which promises significance through participation in collective endeavors such as wars or nation-building), and even workaholism (which allows us to believe that our value lies in what we do rather than who we are).
Each of these mechanisms has its own drawbacks and potential dangers; for example, religious fanaticism can lead to intolerance and even violence, while workaholism can lead to burnout and alienation from others. However, without these mechanisms, we would be constantly reminded of our own mortality and the insignificance of our individual lives. In other words, self-deception is necessary for mental health; without it, we would be unable to function on a day-to-day basis.