2012. Vol.3, No.11, 991-996
Published Online November 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 991
Mortality Salience and Metabolism: Glucose Drinks Reduce
Worldview Defense Caused by Mortality Salience
Matthew T. Gailliot
Psychology Department, Stephen F. Austin State University, Nac o g doches, USA
Received August 23rd, 2012; revised September 23rd, 2012; accepted October 21st, 2012
The current work tested the hypothesis that a glucose drink would reduce worldview defense following
mortality salience. Participants consumed either a glucose drink or placebo, wrote about either death or
dental pain, and then completed a measure of worldview defense (viewing positively someone with
pro-US views and viewing negatively someone with anti-US views). Mortality salience increased world-
view defense among participants who consumed a placebo but not among participants who consumed a
glucose drink. Glucose might reduce defensiveness after mortality salience by increasing the effectiveness
of the self-controlled suppression of death-related thought, by providing resources to cope with mortality
salience and reducing its threatening nature, or by distancing the individual from actual physical death.
Keywords: Mortality Salience; Glucose; Metabolism; Worldview Defense
Reminders of mortality are commonplace, yet people often
avoid thinking about death because thoughts of dying can be
personally threatening (e.g., Aries, 1981; Becker, 1973). The
threatening nature of mortality triggers defensive reactions that
function to reduce awareness of death (e.g., Florian & Miku-
lincer, 1997; Greenberg et al., 1990; Heine, Harihara, & Niiya,
2002; Landau et al., 2004; Ochsmann & Mathey, 1994). The
current work focused on the biology of responses to death re-
minders. It is posited that avoiding thoughts of death is de-
manding, psychological work that requires additional metabolic
energy. When metabolic energy is low, death should be more
threatening. The prediction therefore was that lower glucose—
the primary energy for the brain—would increase defensive
responding to mortality reminders.
There are at least three reasons why low glucose should be
linked with increased defensiveness after mortality salience.
One is that low glucose might impair the effortful, controlled
suppression of death thoughts and thus increase defensive reac-
tions to death reminders. Thoughts of death are avoided and
suppressed (e.g., Aries, 1981; Becker, 1973; Feifel & Brans-
comb, 1973; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Simon, &
Breus, 1994; Harmon-Jones, Simon, Greenberg, Pyszczynski,
Solomon, & McGregor, 1997; Pollak, 1979, 1980). The avoid-
ance or suppression of death thoughts is effortful and demand-
ing (Arndt et al., 1997; Greenberg et al., 2001), and requires
controlled or executive processes (Greenberg et al., 1994;
Harmon-Jones et al., 1997; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solo-
mon, 1999; Wegner, 1994). For instance, after thinking about
mortality, death thoughts are suppressed and less accessible to
awareness (e.g., Arndt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, &
Simon, 1997; Greenberg et al., 1994; Harmon-Jones et al.,
1997). Factors that impair controlled or executive processing
(e.g., a cognitive load) undermine such suppression, however,
and increase the accessibility of death thoughts (Arndt et al.,
1997; Greenberg, Arndt, Schimel, Pyszczynski, & Solomon,
2001; Smart & Wegner, 1999; Wegner & Zanakos, 1994; Wen-
zlaff & Wegner, 2000).
In particular, thought suppression requires self-control (e.g.,
Baumeister, Tice, & Heatherton, 1994; Wegner, 1994). Thus,
people with good (v. poor) trait self-control appear less suscep-
tible to thinking about death (Gailliot, Schmeichel, & Bau-
meister, 2006). Ample evidence indicates that exerting self-
control impairs subsequent self-control (for reviews, see Bau-
meister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000;
Gailliot, 2009). Consistent with these findings, suppressing
thoughts impairs subsequent self-control (e.g., Gordijn, Hin-
driks, Koomen, Dijksterhuis, & Van Knippenberg, 2004; Mu-
raven et al., 1998), as does mortality salience. Mortality Sali-
ence has been found to impair performance on tasks requiring
self-control, such as the Stroop task, solving anagrams, and
effortful persistence tasks (Gailliot et al., 2006; Gailliot et al.,
2007). The idea is that, after thinking about death, people use
self-control to suppress thought related to death, and this im-
pairs subsequent self-control. One study found that regulating
emotions increased death thoughts among participants with
poor trait self-control but not among participants with good trait
self-control (Gailliot, Schmeichel, & Maner, 2007). Regulating
emotions weakened self-control, thereby increasing the acces-
sibility of death-related thought, except among people with
dispositionally good self-control. These findings indicate that
self-control allows for the suppression of death related thought.
Self-control, controlled processing, and effortful exertion use
a relatively large amount of glucose, are better with optimal
glucose levels in the bloodstream, and are impaired by low
glucose or other metabolic problems (DeWall, Baumeister,
Gailliot, & Maner, 2008; Fairclough & Houston, 2004; Gailliot,
2008; Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007; Gailliot et al., 2007; Gail-
liot, Peruche, Plant, & Baumeister, 2009; Masicampo & Bau-
meister, 2008). This indicates that the suppression of death-
related thought after mortality salience is improved by glucose
and impaired by low glucose or metabolic problems. Consistent
with this rationale, mortality salience impaired self-control (i.e.,
it reduced persistence at solving word fragments) in one study
among participants who had consumed a placebo but not a glu-
cose drink (Gailliot et al., 2007). The glucose drink presumably
provided metabolic energy for self-control that had been de-
pleted by suppressing thoughts of death. A few studies suggest
that mortality salience might increase attempts to increase one’s
metabolic energy, such as increasing the desire to buy food and
to increase eating (Friese & Hofmann, 2008; Mandel & Smeest-
ers, 2008; cf. Goldenberg, Arndt, Hart, & Brown, 2005). Per-
haps mortality salience increases rating because people seek
energy that can be used t o avoid thinking abou t death.
Effortful thought suppression reduces the implicit and ex-
plicit accessibility of suppressed thoughts (Anderson & Green,
2001; Arndt et al., 1997; MacLeod, 1989; McBride & Dosher,
1997; Pyszczynski et al., 1999). Individuals with optimal glu-
cose levels therefore should be more successful in suppressing
death thoughts. When mortality is salient, people respond de-
fensively by increasing support for their worldviews, such as by
reacting more positively toward people who support their cul-
tural norms and values and more negatively toward those who
disagree with their cultural norms and values (e.g., Florian &
Mikulincer, 1997; Greenberg et al., 1990; Heine, Harihara, &
Niiya, 2002; Landau et al., 2004; Ochsmann & Mathey, 1994).
Because glucose might enable more effective suppression of
death thoughts and reduce their accessibility, then it should
reduce defensive reactions to mortality salience. Consistent
with this hypothesis, consuming food (v. eating nothing) re-
duced worldview defense caused by mortality salience, in the
form of less negative judgments of worldview transgressions
(Hirschberger & Ein-Dor, 2005). The food provided glucose
that may have enabled more effective suppression of death-
related thought and consequently less worldview defense.
A second reason that glucose should influence worldview
defense following mortality salience is derived from research
on personal threat. Perceptions of threat tend to occur when the
demands of the threat exceed resources available to cope
(Blascovich & Tomaka, 1996; Blascovich & Mendes, 2000).
Glucose is one resource used to cope with (i.e., suppress or
avoid) thoughts of death. When it is low, death reminders
should be more threatening. Defensive reactions therefore
should be stronger. It is possible that mortality salience might
increase eating (Friese & Hofmann, 2008; Mandel & Smeesters,
2008) partly because individuals seek metabolic resources (e.g.,
glucose) to cope with the threat of death.
The third reason that glucose should reduce defensive reac-
tions to death reminders is that glucose is one substrate that
determines both the physical and psychological threat of death.
When glucose is low, physical death is more likely (e.g., from
starvation, a weakened immune system, or a reduced capacity
for energy demanding thought and behavior that aids in sur-
vival) and death is more threatening psychologically, as the
individual should be less able to cope. Death reminders there-
fore should be more threatening both physically and psycho-
logically when glucose is low, thereby leading to stronger de-
fensive reactions.
Thus, defensive reactions to mortality salience should be re-
duced with additional glucose. Glucose might enable more
effective suppression of death-thoughts and/or reduce the extent
to which death is perceived as physically or psychologically
threatening. To test this hypothesis, participants wrote about
either death or a control topic, consumed a glucose drink or
placebo, and then completed a measure of worldview defense.
The prediction was that mortality salience would increase
worldview defense but that this effect would be attenuated
among participants who consumed a glucose drink.
The final sample included 93 college undergraduates (73
women, 20 men) who participated in exchange for extra credit
toward a course grade. Excluded from this sample were 8 par-
ticipants who failed to complete the required experimental ma-
terials and 13 participants who failed to drink the assigned bev-
erage. The dependent measure of worldview defense pertained
to American values and attitudes toward foreigners, and so 19
participants of non-US (foreign) ethnic cities were excluded
from the final sampl e .
Materials and Procedure
Participants first consumed 14 ounces of lemonade sweet-
ened with either sugar (glucose condition) or a sugar substitute
(placebo condition). The glucose drink contained approxi-
mately 140 calories, whereas the placebo contained 0 calories.
Participants and the experimenter were blind to condition.
Next, participants wrote about either death or a control topic
(dental pain). Participants in the mortality salience condition
were asked to describe the emotions, the thought of their own
death aroused in them and to write about what would happen to
their bodies as they physically die (Rosenblatt, Greenberg,
Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989). Participants in the den-
tal pain condition answered the same questions except they
were about dental pain rather than death.
The effects of the mortality salience manipulation used typi-
cally emerge only after a short delay or distraction (Pyszczyn-
ski et al., 1999). To provide this delay and distraction, and to
allow sufficient time for the glucose (if any) in the drinks to be
metabolized, participants completed measures of liking and
taste for the drinks and a measure of mood and arousal. Spe-
cifically, they indicated the extent to which the drink tasted
good, sweet, bitter, and salty, had good texture and appearance,
was difficult to drink, was pleasant to drink, and how much
they liked the drink. They then completed the Brief Mood In-
trospection Scale (BMIS; Mayer & Gaschke, 1988). The BMIS
contains 20 items indicative of mood (e.g., happy, sad) and
arousal (e.g., peppy, drowsy). Participants rated each item to
indicate how they were feeling at the present moment, using a
scale from 1 (definitely do not feel) to 7 (definitely feel).
Last, partic ipants comple ted a measure of worldvi ew defense.
Specifically, participants read two handwritten essays about the
United States that were ostensibly written by two foreigners
(borrowed from Greenberg, Simon, Pyszczynski, Solomon, &
Chatel, 1992). The order of the two essays was counterbalanced
across participants. One essay was pro-US and praised Ameri-
cans, whereas the other essay was anti-US and criticized
Americans. Participants evaluated the truth and validity of the
essay and the likeability, intelligence, and knowledge ability of
each essay’s author on 9-point scales. The summed evaluations
of each essay served as the measures of favorability toward
worldview-consistent and worldview-inconsistent opinions, re-
spectively. In accord with past research (e.g., Greenberg et al.,
1994), worldview defense was defined as the difference be-
tween these two measures. Larger differences indicate more
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
pronounced worldview defense.
A 2 (Drink condition: Glucose drink vs. placebo) × 2 (Essay
condition: Mortality salience vs. dental pain) analysis of vari-
ance (ANOVA) on worldview defense scores indicated a sig-
nificant interaction, F(1,89) = 4.04, p < .05. See Figure 1 for
means. Tests of simple effects indicated that mortality salience,
compared to dental pain salience, increased worldview defense
in the placebo condition, F(1,42) = 4.2 3, p < .05, but not in the
glucose-drink condition, F < 1, ns. Thus, mortality salience did
not increase worldview defense among participants who con-
sumed a glucose drink.
Analyses indicated that these results were not attributable to
differences in taste, appearance, or likeability between the two
drinks or to mood or arousal. Specifically, separate 2 (Drink
condition: Glucose drink vs. placebo) × 2 (Essay condition:
Mortality salience vs. dental pain) ANOVAs on taste, sweet-
ness, bitterness, saltiness, texture, appearance, pleasantness, and
likeability of the drink, as well as on how difficult the drink
was to consume and on mood indicated no significant interac-
tions, Fs < 2.03, ps > .15. A 2 × 2 ANOVA on arousal indi-
cated a marginally significant interaction, F = 3.26, p = .07,
suggesting the highest arousal among participants in the pla-
cebo condition who wrote about death. The 2-way interaction
between drink and essay conditions on worldview defense re-
mained marginally significant when controlling for arousal, F =
3.20, p = .08, however, indicating that the effects were not
driven by arousal.
Consistent with past work, the current study found that mor-
tality salience increased worldview defense. This effect oc-
curred only among participants who consumed a placebo,
however, and not among participants who consumed a glucose
drink. The rationale was that glucose would reduce worldview
defense because it allows for more effective suppression of
death-related thought via self-control, is a resource used to cope
with death (thus the threatening nature of mortality salience
Worldview Defense
Dental Pain
Mortality Salience
Glucose Placebo
Glucose Drink Condition
Figure 1.
Worldview defense as a fu n ct i o n of essay and drink conditions.
should be reduced), and/or is a signal that death is more threat-
ening physically and thus psychologically. Glucose reduces
defensive reactions to mortality salience, whereas low glucose
predisposes individuals to increased defensiveness after mortal-
ity salience.
Past work has shown that mortality salience has a cognitive
cost. It activated controlled suppression mechanisms that impair
self-control afterwards (Gailliot et al., 2006; Gailliot et al.,
2007). The current work suggests that mortality salience might
also have metabolic costs. Suppressing thoughts of death could
plausibly reduce glucose faster than it is replenished.
Another implication is that glucose can be used as an aid to
help people cope with death or suppress or avoid death-related
thought. Rather than respond defensively, which can often en-
tail derogating others, a glucose drink might quell at least some
of the potential terror elicited by thoughts of death. Metabolic
problems aside from low glucose (e.g., hunger, malnourishment)
might also moderate defensive reactions to death.
Diabetes and glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency,
two metabolic disorders, have been linked with reduced aggres-
sive restraint (DeWall, Gailliot, Deckman, & Bushman, 2009),
one form of self-control, suggesting that these disorders might
relate to reactions to mortality salience as well.
The amount of metabolic energy that can be used during a
given amount of time is limited (Klieber, 1961). A large body
of evidence demonstrates that energy used by one process
therefore can be diverted away from others (Gailliot, Hilde-
brandt, Eckel, & Baumeister, 2009). Hence, processes that in-
fluence glucose (e.g., immune defense, biological reproductive
activity, stress) could also influence defensive responding to
mortality salience. Cancer cells, for instance, use a dispropor-
tionately large amount of glucose (Schoen et al., 1999; Weber
et al., 2003; Younes, Lechago, Somoano, Mosharaf, & Lechago,
1996). Some evidence suggests that their metabolic-energy use
might divert energy away from and thereby impair frontal lobe
functioning (Cleeland et al., 2003; Meyers, Albitar, & Estey,
2005; Meyers, Byrne, & Komaki, 1995). Individuals with can-
cer therefore might especially struggle to avoid thinking about
death or engaging indefensive responses not only because of
their potentially terminal condition but also because the cancer
cells might divert metabolic energy away from the suppression
of death-related thought or contribute to low glucose levels that
predispose toward heightened defensivene ss. Metabolic a ctivity
increases in the ovaries during premenstrual syndrome, and
these increases appear to divert energy from and impair self-
control (Gailliot et al., 2009). Women therefore might be espe-
cially likely to engage in defensive responding to mortality
salience while experiencing premenstrual syndrome symptoms.
Evidence indicates that the psychological capacity for some
processes operates through the existence of earlier, biological
systems (e.g., morality and disgust, Wheatley & Haidt, 2005;
emotional and physical pain, DeWall & Baumeister, 2006;
Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004; Eisenberger, Lieberman, &
Williams, 2003; MacDonald & Leary, 2005). Processes enact-
ing self-control rely heavily on glucose levels (e.g., Gailliot &
Baumeister, 2007; Gailliot et al., 2007). If metabolite levels are
indicative of survival capacity, with low glucose indicating a
greater threat of death (e.g., increased weakness and hunger),
then it is possible that the capacity for self-control operates on a
preexisting metabolic system that alerts one to the threat of
death. Thus, it is the same system that alerts one to the possibil-
ity of physical death and that manages psychological thoughts
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 993
of death.
Work from evolutionary psychology suggests that people
think and behave in ways functional to goal attainment, such as
perceiving increased threat from others when afraid or in-
creased sexual interest when sexually aroused (Maner, Gailliot,
& DeWall, 2007; Maner et al., 2005). The current findings
suggest a functional response concerning low glucose and mor-
tality. When glucose is low, the individual is in a weaker, more
vulnerable state, and thoughts of death might come to mind
more readily. The thoughts of death function to increase the
individual’s connection to culture, which facilitates survival. It
is functional that, in a weakened state, thoughts of death might
increase so as to mesh the individual in a stronger system that
facilitates survival.
Evolution is viewed mostly in terms of natural selection
based on survival and reproduction. One underemphasized view
is that natural selection operates in terms of energy (Gilliland,
1978; Lotka, 1922; Odum, 1995). Organisms that acquire, use,
and control larger amounts of energy tend to survive and re-
produce, as will those that are more efficient. Organisms that do
not maximize energy are selected against. Over time, species
increase their capacity to process or control larger amounts of
energy. People have evolved so as to be capable of sustaining
and being part of a larger cultural system (Baumeister, 2005).
Culture clearly is a high energy system, providing people with
energy (e.g., oil, food) or energy-saving devices (e.g., machines
for transportation, vaccines that aid in immune defense). It is
fitting that people strengthen their ties to culture after mortality
salience when their biological energy (glucose) is low. When
personal energy is low, people seek a system that provides en-
ergy, consistent with the idea that thoughts and behaviors have
been naturally selected to promote the control of higher
amounts of energy.
Future work on the topic of glucose and mortality salience
should examine what mediates the current effects. Theoretical
and empirical arguments suggest that glucose reduces world-
view defense after mortality salience because people are more
effective at the self-controlled suppression of death-related
thought, less threatened by death, or more distant from actual
physical death. Any of these could potentially mediate the cur-
rent effects.
Humans are metabolic organisms. Life is a process of ac-
quiring and using metabolic energy. To stop the metabolic flow
is to end life, to reduce the metabolic flow is to tend closer to
death. Likewise, when glucose is low, death might be more
threatening in that people respond more defensively to mortal-
ity reminders. This new perspective on the management of mor-
tality concerns and metabolism raises numerous exciting ave-
nues for future research.
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