Student Looks For the Good Life in 'Death' Research

Mike Prentice '08 conducts senior honors project

July 14, 2008

Death can be a horrendous thing to think about. Not just frightening, paralyzing. But for Mike Prentice ’08, whose double majors include psychology and philosophy, the thought of Earth falling into the Sun in five billion years and the defining truth that some people flinch away from and refuse to even think about, was a study that he brought to life in his senior honors project.

Originally from Casper, Wyoming, Prentice says his study, “An Examination of Interplay of Death Thought Writing and Interventions and Personality in the Prediction of Psychological Growth and Defense,” started in his sophomore year at Knox while working on a McNair funded project about terror [fright] management theory. “It is basically a theory that tries to understand why death thoughts are a problem for people and how they react.”

Like any other creature on Earth, people are biologically driven to survive. “But we are smart enough to know that we are going to die, and that provides sort of a fundamental basis for existential anxiety. I found these studies interesting,” he says.

During his first year at Knox, Prentice says he thought it was interesting that there were experimental studies being conducted in terror management. “I wasn’t aware at the time but there was this science within a science called experimental existential psychology,” he says.

According to Prentice, the science looks at how people deal with the fundamentals of being a human being. “I looked at selfhood, emotions of freedom, and nostalgia and death - all those fun things.”

Skeptics and doubters can be dismissive. But, when in the grip of existential despair, people often comfort themselves by fervently holding beliefs they have no evidence for.

Prentice examined the underlying factors that could predict one way of reacting to death thoughts as the foundation for his project. “There is a lot of research out there about post traumatic stress and coming out of adverse situations exhibiting better psychological functioning than before.”

He says that some of his discoveries along the way included how thinking negative thoughts could actually be a good thing for a person and produce a psychological growth. “We tend to think we need positive outcomes to increase happiness. But there are still positive things that can come out of negative situations… even though it is hard to tell someone that at the time.”

Prentice examined the conception of a good life and says he used concepts taken right out of Greek philosophy. “Well being is generally considered when someone has a meaning in life and structured values in a particular way,” he says.

Prentice used friends, his advisor and even himself as subjects for the study. “I had about 50 people participating. It was quite a time consuming part of the project,” he says.

“I basically found that there is an interaction between the conception of the good life during a time of stress. There is a way to reach people who are focused on the concrete. Some produce positive life changes too.”

Coming to Knox may have been a life altering decision for Prentice. “From the minute I came to the campus to visit, I was sold on it. I sat in on classes where the students and the professors were engaged in talking to you. I chose Knox because of the academics; the faculty here really cares about what students are doing and really care about teaching. If you are looking for that, then this is the place.”

While at Knox, Prentice received the Robert Stevens Harper Prize for Graduate Study in Psychology, awarded annually to a student who best exemplifies the late Professor Harper's philosophy of education and who has been accepted into a PhD program in some area of psychology. It is named in honor of Professor Robert S. Harper, Knox faculty 1949-87 and was established by his family, colleagues, former students and friends. Prentice also received the Merritt H. Moore Prize in Philosophy awarded to the author of the outstanding philosophy paper during the preceding year. It was established anonymously to honor Dr. Moore, professor of philosophy at Knox 1933-55; and the David R. Arnold Award for independent research that supports or enhances the research of a faculty member. It was established by David R. Arnold '37.

Prentice plans on going to graduate school and continuing his research. Eventually he plans on becoming a professor.

Michael Prentice
Why so sad? Michael Prentice contemplates cross country practice, his research agenda, the fate of the earth, the human condition, etc.