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Nothing Focuses The Mind Like The Ultimate Deadline: Death

Dec 31, 2013
Originally published on March 18, 2014 12:38 pm

Ticktock. Ticktock. Ticktock.

The seconds left in 2013 are slipping away. And you know what else is slipping away? The seconds left in your life.

Luckily for you, there's a new product called Tikker, a wristwatch that counts down your life, so you can watch on a large, dot-matrix display as the seconds you have left on Earth disappear down a black hole.

Your estimated time of death is, of course, just that — an estimate. Tikker uses an algorithm like the one used by the federal government to figure a person's life expectancy. But the effect is chilling, a sort of incessant grim reaper reminding you that time is running out.

Tikker's inventor is a 37-year-old Swede named Fredrik Colting. He says he invented the gadget not as a morbid novelty item, but in an earnest attempt to change his own thinking.

He wanted some sort of reminder to not sweat the small stuff and reach for what matters. Colting, a former gravedigger, figured imminent death was the best motivator there is. That's why he calls Tikker "the happiness watch." It's his belief that watching your life slip away will remind you to savor life while you have it.

And, it turns out, there is some evidence for his point of view. A 2009 study showed that thinking about death makes you savor life more. And a 2011 study has shown that thinking about death makes you more generous, more likely to donate your blood.

But that's not the whole story. A whole dark underbelly of research suggests that thinking about our own mortality can bring out the worst in us. The work of Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski — grandfathers of an idea in social psychology called terror management theory — has shown that thinking about death makes us, well, pretty xenophobic. When confronted with our mortality, we cling to those like us and disparage those who are different.

Now, why do you get both positive and negative effects? Well, that's an open question in science right now. Do both always occur? Does it depend on the person? Does it depend on the way in which you are made to think about death, specifically picturing your own death or thinking about death in a more abstract or subliminal way? No one knows yet.

So whether Tikker will make you happy or, as Solomon quipped to me, "a xenophobic serial killer," is still unknown. What is known is that the watch will be available in April 2014, and thousands of preorders have already rolled in.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

With the New Year's Eve countdowns just hours away, we thought we'd let you know about a brand new product due out this spring. It's a wrist watch but hardly an ordinary one. This one displays a countdown to your death.

NPR's Lulu Miller brings us the story of the watch and how it might affect its wearer.

LULU MILLER, BYLINE: So how long until you die?

FREDRIK COLTING: Well. 42 years, 3 months, 28 days, 11 hours and now 49 minutes and 13 seconds in 12, 11, 10, 9...

MILLER: This is Fredrik Colting, a 37-year-old Swedish man living in L.A., who has been many things in his life: a grave-digger, a publisher and, most recently, the inventor of this morbid contraption - a sleek black wristwatch, which slides around your wrist and displays to you three lines of digital numbers.

COLTING: First row is the years, the months and the days.

MILLER: Till you die.

COLTING: And the second row is the hours, minutes and seconds.

MILLER: Till you die.

COLTING: And then, the third row is just the general time.


MILLER: To calculate your estimated time of death, Colting uses a formula which is similar to the U.S. Government's Life Expectancy Calculator. You simply punch in a few details: your age, sex, country of origin, whether or not you smoke, stress level,

COLTING: So you get, I guess you call it an exact approximation of when you will expire.

MILLER: And what does he call his watch? Not Portable Grim Reaper: The Terrifying Stress Watch, but Tikker...

COLTING: The happiness watch.

MILLER: The happiness watch.

COLTING: I think that if people in general are more aware of their deaths, they will make better choices and they will appreciate life more.

MILLER: He said imagine you are in a job that you don't love.

COLTING: You can glance at your wrist and you can realize, hey, I only have 40 years left then I'm gone. I have no more life. I'm going to just change it.

MILLER: So that's his theory; that death bearing down will make you prioritize better.

COLTING: So I'm not sure if we should we hurry up this interview.


MILLER: Fine, I wanted to go to scientist now anyway.



SOLOMON: I think were' Rollin.

MILLER: This is Sheldon Solomon, a psychologist at Skidmore College, who's one of the grandfathers of a branch of social psychology that looks at what thinking about your death does to your behavior.

Do you think that staring down at your wrist and watching your life slip away before your eyes, will make people happier?

SOLOMON: Hmm, maybe...

MILLER: Solomon says the principal behind Tikker is actually a very old idea.

SOLOMON: For example, it's very well known that medieval monks used to keep a human skull on their desks. And the idea was that if you spent every waking moment in pristine awareness of the fact that the meter is running, that that's going to bring the best out in you.

MILLER: And this positive, life-savoring effect has actually been documented by scientists all over the world. It's been shown that when people think about death, they rate life as more valuable. They become more generous, more likely to donate their blood.

SOLOMON: On the other hand, we have literally hundreds of other experiments that really kind of frighteningly suggests that this kind of fleeting reminder of mortality might bring out the worst in people rather than the best.

MILLER: Time and time again, what Solomon has observed is a much darker reaction.

SOLOMON: The minute that death is in your mind...

MILLER: You become, well, xenophobic.

SOLOMON: We become more hostile and aggressive to people who are different. And so, for example, in an early study we had Christian participants in the United States think about themselves dying.

MILLER: And then they were asked to fill out a questionnaire about a Jewish person. And the control group - Christians - well, they thought the Jewish person was quite lovely, likeable, smart, et cetera. But the Christians who had been told to think about death first...

SOLOMON: When reminded of their mortality first, now they hated the Jewish people. And that's not about Christians per se. In Israel, if you have Jewish people thinking about dying, they dislike Arabs and Christians. In India, if you have Indians think about dying, they dislike Pakistanis and so on.

MILLER: What's even more troubling, said Solomon, is that your behavior changes too.

SOLOMON: In a laboratory setting at least, if we give people an opportunity to physically hurt somebody who is different than them, after reminding them of death, they become particularly hostile and aggressive to folks who are different.

MILLER: And more likely to hurt them?

SOLOMON: Yes, they are actually more likely to hurt them.

MILLER: As to why, of course, Solomon doesn't know, but his research suggests that we do this out of fear. Death terrifies us. And in the face of death, we want more potently than ever to be among our own. And thus, we also want, more potently than ever, to shun those who are not like us.

SOLOMON: And, you know, that's one of most disturbing implications of these ideas, that one of the reasons why humankind has a long and sordid history of intolerance against people who are different is the result of a psychological inability to tolerate death.

MILLER: Which brings us back to Tikker.


MILLER: Truly, honestly, what do you think this would do to people?

SOLOMON: All right. Truly, honestly. I'm highly ambivalent.

MILLER: Solomon says that both effects, the positive ones and the more...

SOLOMON: Defensive and unsavory reactions.

MILLER: They've both clearly been demonstrated to occur in labs.

SOLOMON: So to be scientific, I reserve judgment until we have some information.


MILLER: Hello.


MILLER: So we went out and got him some information.

ROSENTHAL: So now I'm going to set the watch.

MILLER: This is Jeff Rosenthal.

ROSENTHAL: Thirty-two and half years left to live.

MILLER: And his wife Theresa.

THERESA: Twenty-nine years left in my life.

MILLER: And they both agreed to wear Tikker for 24 hours to see what happened to them.

THERESA: That's good because I want to die before you die.




MILLER: And the results were - mixed.

THERESA: This is already making me anxious.

MILLER: Theresa's initial reaction to death on the wrist was a kind of doomy impatience.

THERESA: I'm in the middle of making my bed and I feel like what's the point.

MILLER: Whereas, Jeff experienced a surge of carpe diem.

ROSENTHAL: All right. Let's park and go to breakfast.

MILLER: But then as the day went on, formerly anxious Theresa, found herself sitting in traffic...

THERESA: Feeling refreshed...

MILLER: ...with the world suddenly seeming brighter.

THERESA: Colors are brighter. I feel that like feeling that you feel not quite when you're first in love, but near that.

MILLER: Whereas, Jeff suddenly got struck by that same impatience.

ROSENTHAL: I am going through our junk mail. I mean here I am 32 years, six months, 20 hours, 18 minutes and 3 seconds, 2 seconds, 1 second, and I have to take some of those seconds and put it straight into the trash.

MILLER: The next morning, Theresa woke up feeling as though the world was still sharpened.

THERESA: So thank you for letting me be a part of the experiment. I will be getting a Happiness Watch when they're available because I loved it.

MILLER: Whereas, Jeff, couldn't wait to get the thing off.

ROSENTHAL: I'm not sure I can take thinking about it right now. And I want a break.

MILLER: Fredrik Colting says the Tikker watch is due out in April.

COLTING: We have orders for like 3,000 watches.

MILLER: And Dr. Solomon believes that the watch could indeed produce the happiness Colting promises.

COLTING: It could surely do that. But...

MILLER: He asks us not to forget the findings from his work.

COLTING: Side effects may include: physical aggression towards people not like you. Racism. Reckless driving. Homophobia. Greed. Avoidance of people with disabilities. Binge eating and drinking. Increased smoking. Risky financial decisions. Obsession with fame. Hostility to nature and animals. It may also increase compulsive behavior, magnify phobias and social anxiety. And amplify psychological dissociation leading to post-traumatic stress disorder.

MILLER: Lulu Miller, NPR News, Washington.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.