What can horror movies teach us about the way we make decisions?

We know that motivations influence behaviour. But what is it that fundamentally drives motivation?

One theory is that people are motivated by a need to balance arousal levels (Arousal theory). A different theory highlights self-actualisation – striving to fulfil our potential and maximise well-being (Humanistic theory). And another theory claims that people are motivated by innate biological instincts and reflexes – categorised by Freud as life instincts and death instincts (Instinct theory).

I’d like to pull elements of these theories together, and propose a new theory of motivation: Horror theory. What if the most powerful motivator of all is fear? And what if, as is often posited, at the core of that is the fear of death?

Death can be categorised in four ways, each of which we’re motivated to avoid:

  • Mortal ego-death – The death of a defined self. Loss of integrity. Loss of one’s constructed sense of identity, capability and fulfilment. This can be sudden or gradual. Often resulting in shame, humiliation and a damaged sense of self-worth, but sometimes painless like shedding skin. I think we probably all die an ego-death or two (or more) during the course of our lives, but there’s comfort in knowing that of all the types of death, it holds the least amount of permanence.
  • Mortal death – When our hearts stop beating, our lungs stop breathing, and our brains stop thinking. A very tangible form of death. Following our mortal death, we are no longer able to share new thoughts, new ideas, new creations, new recipes, new joys, new pleasures… but we live on through the legacy that we did manage to articulate and share during our comparatively short time living and breathing. Until…
  • Ego-extinction – The value we put into the world and society becomes obsolete or is no longer talked about or remembered. The death of our spiritual, philosophical, and creative legacy.
  • Extinction – When the last human dies a mortal death, and as a species we are no longer able to create or pro-create. We may still leave behind a legacy, but it will no longer be for the benefit of people. It may benefit other species and life-forms, or it may be to their detriment. We don’t know and we won’t know. We no longer have control. We’re all gone.

But people aren’t motivated to fear death, we fear death because we’re motivated to survive. It’s survival that’s actually at the core of all decision-making: preservation of ego, preservation of legacy, and survival of the person and the species.

And to protect these survival cores, we seek comfort (familiarity, absence of pain), control (autonomy, consciousness, clarity, absence of risk, purpose), and social contact. It’s these three motivations from which our biases and heuristics stem. And if our motivations do indeed stem from survival instincts, then it may be the case that we can learn a thing or two from fear.

So next time you’re watching a horror film and you find yourself feeling uncomfortable, pay attention. Ask yourself what is it that the film has tapped into that made you respond the way you did?

You might just discover a fundamental human truth. And there’s nothing scarier than that.