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Relentless Existential Threat

Theme 2023-2024

Existential threat – a threat to someone or something’s existence – ranges from threat to the self (ordinary dying), to an ideology, and even to a society. Existential threat is a powerful force on individuals and societies, affecting our decisions often below conscious awareness. The primary mechanism is fear. Most recently, as we have reached the limits of what our planet can provide, a new larger scale existential threat has arisen: to humanity’s way of living in the world.

Existential threat. illustration

As exponential economic growth brushes up against the ecological carrying capacity of the planet, this new threat has created instability that appears in a wide range of problems such as war, natural disasters, and food or healthcare shortages. The limited ability of the individual to ameliorate world-spanning problems, can produce a new level fear and this threat therefore offers new existential challenges.

The Theme will combine disparate strands of research and historical experience and explore existential threat at the individual, social, and global level. Focus will be on three timescales, short, medium and long and address questions such as for example;

  • What is the primary mechanism through which existential threat operates?
  • What is the role of fear? Are there other mechanisms?
  • How can psychological models that help individuals respond constructively to existential threat to the self (for example, in the medical setting) be adapted for societies?
  • What can we learn from how past groups have responded or succumbed to large existential threats?
  • What are the psychological benefits and costs when a longer-term threat is deliberately made more salient?

The Theme´s goal is to develop a coherent psychologically informed framework that can inform individual and society-wide planning and decision making in order to help individuals and societies live well with the growing burden of existential threat.