Death Awareness and Travel: an Interview with Dr. Lindsey Harvell-Bowman

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Last Updated on: 15th September 2021, 11:03 pm


Catastrophic events happen around the world nearly every day. On the news we hear about terrorism, plane crashes, and freak accidents. For some, a terrorist incident makes it impossible for them to want to travel to that location in the future. For others, they put the incident in a box and are able to keep their travel plans.

Why?  Why do these incidents affects people so differently?

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I love airplane turbulence! I fly more than once a month, and I don’t get anxiety about crashing at all. Sure, I get a ton of anxiety about who’s going to be sitting next to me, how small the seat is going to be across, and whether my backpack will get flagged as too heavy for a budget airline. But I’ve never been afraid that the plane was about to crash.

Maybe this is why I’ve always been so fascinated by Dr. Harvell-Bowman’s work.  Some background:  we were sorority sisters and classmates in college, which has given me free range to stalk her Facebook feed whenever there is a major plane crash. Why?  Because her work on death awareness means any time there’s a major airplane incident, she’s going to have something pretty interesting to say. In the ten years since we left undergrad, she’s gone on to earn her PhD, become a published author, and now works as an assistant professor at James Madison University in communication studies.

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This is why I’m so excited to share this interview I did with her recently about death awareness, what it is, and how it affects travelers and their families.

An airplane on the tarmac at Shannon Airport in Ireland


The Interview

Q: You’re officially a death scholar, but I’ve come to think of you as my favorite “airplane crash” scholar. How did you get into studying death awareness and plane crashes?

I’ve always loved airplanes, after all I was born in Wichita, Kansas, the air-capital of the world. So, as a kid I was always fascinated with airplanes and would go to the air shows. When I was at Wichita State for my master’s a lot of our public speaking students would give complex speeches about the parts of airplanes (it’s a top program for aerospace engineering). Some time during my graduate program I also started watching this show on Nat Geo called, “Air Disaster.” I really loved how the show focused on the details and the nuances of how the plane’s structure led to the plane crash. At this point, it was still just a hobby.

When I was in my doctorate program, my advisor passed away. At that time, I was working with another faculty member on a directed readings class that looked at death awareness. I guess it all kind of clicked. It changed my world, in fact, and the way I thought about it. So, I guess you could say my advisor passing away really led me to a life of researching death awareness.

Q:  What is death awareness?   

Death awareness, in its simplest form, is being aware of your impending death. We all have death awareness, it just varies in levels at various points in our life. For instance, if you have someone close to you that dies, you will become very death aware because that death will ultimately lead you to contemplate your own death. I study this area under the larger umbrella of Terror Management Theory (TMT), which is a psychological theory concerning what we do as humans to try to make ourselves feel better about death (specifically, attempting to eliminate our death anxiety). This theory was developed in the late 1980s at the University of Kansas by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski.

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Q:  Death comes up in the course of traveling in a few different ways, but the most common is when thinking about modes of transportation.  I’ve read stories of ferry crashes, I’ve been involved in car crashes, and I’ve obviously seen how plane crashes take over entire news cycles.  What is happening to someone when the act of planning a road trip makes them think about the possibility of dying?

I don’t think the mere planning of a trip would make folks think about death, but if they are acutely aware (for instance, maybe plane crashes have been in the news lately) or maybe they’ve been in a car accident or a ferry accident, they may avoid that mode of transportation and opt for a different one. Additionally, sometimes (and I am definitely guilty of this) when folks book airfare, they want to know where the best place to sit in the airplane is. In fact, I get a lot of text messages, phone calls, and emails asking me about this. In either case, you are participating in death defying behavior and, arguably, becoming death aware in the process.

Q: Different modes of transportation carry different risks, but the way they are sensationalized aren’t in proportion to this risk. For myself, I think about dying in a Titanic style boat crash more often than dying in a car wreck, even though I’ve actually been in car accidents. Why do people interpret risks incorrectly?

I think the media has a lot to do with this, but also our own psyches are to blame as well. We’ve all heard the saying, “you are much more likely to get in a car crash than an airplane crash” or “airplane travel is much safer than driving in a car.” But, we still fear air travel more than driving in a car. Some of this can be accredited to the media. They sensationalize airplane crashes (e.g., MH370 and CNN) and if there’s a boat crash of large proportions, you’ll hear about that on the news as well. But, rarely do car crashes make it on the news unless it’s a multiple-vehicle pile up or something odd happened. While that is one aspect of it, I think our psyches are to blame as well. We give up control when we are in an airplane. If you crash in an airplane, it isn’t anything you did (unless you are flying it), but in a car, you can attribute a lot more in an accident to your behaviors. This loss of control is naturally anxiety-inducing. You are putting your trust in someone you do not know and have never met. If you pair this with the media coverage of pilots crashing planes to commit suicide (e.g., Germanwings) or planes crashing due to pilot error (e.g., Asiana), it has interesting effects on your psyche.

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Q:  Obviously this fear isn’t keeping me off of boats, but for some people it would. Why do some people overcome this fear easily, while for others it cripples them?

I think we can look to Terror Management Theory (TMT) for answers about this. If the classic buffers aren’t working to rid yourself of your death anxiety (e.g., having high self-esteem, having close relationships, religion, etc.), then simply pushing the death awareness inducing activity or thought away is the simplest option and the easiest for us psychologically. It doesn’t take much cognitive effort to simply ignore the message/activity or even avoid it.

Q:  Reading your book, I was shocked to learn that nearly 50% of Americans have a fear of flying. Do researchers know what percentage would be unable to fly because of their fear?

There is approximately 25% of the population that has what is called, “Aviophobia.” These folks are diverse in their feelings about flying (e.g., some are able to fly using medication whereas others are not).

Q:  I believe your research indicates some coping mechanisms that people with fear of flying can do to calm themselves. Can you explain your findings?

I think one of the major things that can be done is simply focusing on efficacy. It is possible to survive a plane crash. In fact, there are safety messages before every flight that outline how. However, what I have found with some of my colleagues at West Virginia University is that recall for these messages is poor. We argue this is because thinking about crashing is psychologically too much. So, they are pushing this death awareness away by choosing to not listen to the message. This is supported by Terror Management Theory (TMT) in that pushing the message or thought away and out of consciousness is our first defense against death anxiety.

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Q:  When a major plane crash happens, how does this affect flight sales? Is there any change?

I would say they definitely go down for that airline. After Malaysian Airlines had their plane go missing (MH370) and then one of their planes shot down (MH17), they were offering refunds to passengers. I mean, can you blame them? I wouldn’t want to fly on Malaysian Airlines after that. As for the other airlines, I don’t think it affects it that much. Folks just choose not to think about it, because they still have jobs to do and families/friends to visit.

Q:  Besides transportation accidents, I see people openly discussing death and travel more often when there’s been a recent act of terrorism. How does terrorism affect individuals who aren’t at high risk of being immediately affected?

I think terrorism reminds people of the lack of control they have of others. Terrorism is a death reminder, but it also pushes the limits of what we thought could happen. In France, I don’t believe anybody would have imagined those massacres possible or with 9/11. We never thought that would happen. However, once it does, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities of things that are out of your control that could still happen to you. In a way, your psyche is being retrained.

Q:  Last year, Orlando had three terrible incidents happen in one weekend—there was a signer shot, then the Pulse Nightclub shooting, followed by a toddler being attacked by a crocodile. Now when I think about traveling to Orlando, I can’t get past these three events, even though I’ve been to Orlando three times. Is there an explanation for this in death awareness studies?

Not any more than the reasons already discussed. They are death reminders. And, definitely not good PR for Orlando. But, these weren’t related in any way, so I don’t think it’s stopping people from going to Orlando. I mean, Disney seems to still be running.

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Q:  A lot of traveler’s site their future death as a reason for traveling. They’ll say something like “On my deathbed, I won’t regret taking time away from the office, but I will regret not exploring the world more.” What is happening when this future, far-off view of death changes behavior now? Is it really a fear of death or is it just a good go-to excuse to explain behavior?

I definitely think it is a reaction to death anxiety. Having regrets on your death-bed is something that will make death worse. The goal is to make it better. These kinds of thoughts are usually brought on by the reminders of death in others, whether that be an actual death or just a news story about someone who had regrets on their death-bed.

Q:  For some friends and family members of travelers, their fear for the safety of the traveler causes them a lot of stress and anxiety. Can this be related to death awareness?

Absolutely! Their death anxiety is now being subjected on their friends and family. It’s all intertwined. And, in fact, TMT research has shown that thinking about the death of a loved one can cause you every bit as much of death anxiety as it would if you were contemplating your own death.

Final Thoughts

If you’re as interested by Lindsay’s work as I am, you can check out her book Denying Death: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Terror Management Theory from Amazon.

2 thoughts on “Death Awareness and Travel: an Interview with Dr. Lindsey Harvell-Bowman”

  1. Interesting interview and so topical. Humans are so bad at assessing risk. We freak out over a teensy tiny chance of dying in a terrorist attack, and ignore the very real threats of heart disease or gun violence. (And what is it about heart disease and cancer not seeming nearly as threatening as terrorism, when we for sure all know people who have died from the latter, and it’s much less likely we know anyone who died from the former??) A

    Re planes vs cars, I think because planes kill a large number at once, and there is a height involved, and a lack of control, it’s way scarier to contemplate. Even if you are more likely to die in a car accident, and even if we can’t always control it, there is much more illusion of control, or even a reality of some control.

    Also, as you point out coverage for terrorism and plane crashes way outweighs car accidents and heart disease. It’s impossible for that stuff not to get in your head if you pay too much attention to it.


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