Death anxiety in Asian cultures

Research by psychologist Dr Emiko Kashima is examining how culture and society influences the perception of death.

Social psychology research has shown that the anxiety about death can have negative impacts on wellbeing and social behaviours. While much is known about responses, the strength of death anxiety and how it may vary across cultures is still unknown.

“Humans are shaped by cultural and personal experiences, and anxiety at the thought of death can vary greatly,” says Dr Emiko Kashima, an Associate Professor from the Department of Psychology and Counselling at La Trobe University. “In China it is taboo to talk about or mention death in public. It’s this taboo that seems to be at the base of Chinese concerns against notifying terminally ill patients of their imminent death. In western countries there could be a greater reliance on faith in an afterlife. All of this shapes how we feel about death.”

Dr Kashima’s research examined the awareness of mortality across four distinctly different cultures - Australia, China, Japan and the United States. Working with Professor Shihui Han of Peking University in China and Dr Kuniaki Yanagisawa from Kyoto University, participants underwent two different experiments.

“Subjects in Japan and China were scanned using an fMRI while being briefly exposed to death-related words,” says Dr Kashima. “This let us study the immediate response to the concept of death. The threat detection in the brain activates very quickly, and it triggers another wave of activities to counter-regulate the threat reactions.”

“In Japan we found evidence that stronger death-anxiety was associated with greater activities in brain areas associated with rewards, which is interesting. Otherwise, we found that the biological responses are quite similar regardless of the home country, although more research is required.”

The second experiment involved participants completing a questionnaire on subjects such as faith, preparation for death, grief, and superstition. They were asked to mark their response on a grading scale, and the results were compared by country of origin, religion, and gender.

“We found that there is much more anxiety about death in Japan and China than there was in Australia and the United States, and Chinese respondents by far felt the most angst,” says Dr Kashima. “In all countries, women were consistently much more anxious about death than men. We also found that anxiety about death goes down with age in every country except for Japan, where it always stayed relatively high.”

“These results show that all humans have similar biological responses, but society and culture are important influencers on how we experience death anxiety. Those in Australia and the USA were predominantly Christian (thus believe in an afterlife), and interestingly, more religious people reported more death anxiety in these countries. In China and Japan, in contrast, religiosity and death anxiety were totally independent.”

In the future Dr Kashima would like to extend the results to other countries and compare how death anxiety relate to diverse human motivations across cultures. Her results will also provide valuable data in fields of health and stress research.