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Can our possessions save us from death? Exploring literal and symbolic mechanisms of immortality

Dr Keren Segal is originally from Jerusalem, Israel, where she studied psychology and sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before completing her PhD in Psychology at the University of Otago under Prof Jamin Halberstadt. Keren is currently an assistant research fellow working with Professor Elaine Reese, an Associate Editor for Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, and teaches research methods at Otago Polytechnic.


The connection between death and personal possessions is well documented. Archaeological excavations have found that humans have historically buried their dead with the things they owned, often for the purpose of using them in the afterlife. However, even in post-industrial Western societies people continue to bury the dead with objects that are important for the deceased or the survivors, or to cherish such objects as symbols of the person who has died.

In four experimental studies I explored whether and how personal possessions help people manage anxiety about their own death, either symbolically, through the hope that the items will serve as reminders of them to survivors, or literally, by the thought that a part of the self can be imbued and live on in an object after death. I also examined what effect, if any, changes in death anxiety would have on post-experimental religious beliefs and on attitudes towards the processes of will writing.

The studies support a small but replicable benefit of sentimental possessions, and suggest that the benefit accrues, at least among nonreligious people, through symbolic mechanisms, rather than via belief in the literal extension of life.

Date Monday, 28 September 2020
Time 12:00pm - 1:00pm
Audience Public
Event Category Sciences
Event Type Seminar
LocationUniversity of Otago, Department of Psychology, 275 Leith Walk, William James building, Level 2, Room 203
Contact NameShae MacMillan
Contact Phone+64 3 479 6542

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