Defending a coherent autobiography: When past events appear incoherent, mortality salience prompts compensatory bolstering of the past's significance and the future's orderliness

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Drawing on terror management theory, we propose that maintaining a coherent autobiography protects the individual from mortality concerns by imbuing experience over time with significance and order. Two studies test whether mortality salience combined with a threat to autobiographical coherence (induced by an alphabetical organization of past events) prompts compensatory bolstering of the significance and orderliness of temporal experience. In Study 1, whereas exclusionprimed participants led to organize past events alphabetically perceived their past as less significant, mortality salient participants showed a compensatory boost in perceptions of their past's significance. In Study 2, mortality salience and an alphabetic event organization led participants high in personal need for structure to parse their future into clearly defined temporal intervals. This research is the first to experimentally assess the role of existential concerns in people's motivation to defend the significance and structure of their temporal experience against threats to autobiographical coherence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1012-1020
Number of pages9
JournalPersonality and social psychology bulletin
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2009



  • Autobiographical coherence
  • Personal need for structure
  • Self-narrative
  • Terror management theory
  • Time

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology

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