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Thoughts Of Death Influence Food Choices And Charitable Giving

June 20, 2005

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many Americans reported changes in behavior, from overeating to overspending to increased church attendance. New research from Duke and Stanford University identifies the ways a heightened awareness of mortality changed people’s specific behaviors.

Rosellina Ferraro, a Ph.D. student at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, Baba Shiv, associate professor of marketing at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, and James R. Bettman, professor of marketing at Fuqua, undertook several experiments to understand changes in two particular behaviors, food choice and virtuous behavior, following events that remind people of their own mortality. The studies were conducted while Shiv was an associate professor at The University of Iowa.

The research was published in the June 2005 Journal of Consumer Research .

“The reported behavior changes after Sept. 11 were so widespread and so seemingly unpredictable,” Ferraro said. “We thought it was important to address this phenomenon from an academic perspective to find out if there was an explanation.”

Existing theories predict that people dealing with thoughts of their own deaths will increase their attempts to live up to the standards that are most central to their self-esteem, according to the researchers. While doing so, they pay less attention to areas not as important to their self-esteem.

The Duke and Stanford researchers isolated two factors that affect people’s behavior: body esteem (whether or not a person’s body is an important source of self-esteem) and virtue.

THE IMPORTANCE OF VIRTUE

Researchers told 115 participants that they would be entered into a $200 lottery as part of their compensation for a study. All participants answered questions to determine the importance of virtue to their self-esteem. Half were then asked questions about the prospect of their own deaths, while a control group was asked questions about dental pain.

The researchers then asked each person to indicate how much of the $200 lottery prize they would be willing to donate to a charity if they won.

The experiment demonstrated that charitable giving and virtuous behavior are influenced by salience -- thoughts -- of death in men and women. Participants for whom virtue is an important source of self-esteem offered significantly higher donations (an average of $65) when mortality was more salient than when it was not (an average of $34.50) and also reported significantly higher intentions to engage in socially conscious consumer behaviors when mortality thoughts were elevated.

Participants for whom virtue was not an important source of self-esteem, however, actually donated less when death was salient (an average of $20.36).

“When death becomes salient, some of us will open our wallets, while others will clutch them even tighter,” Ferraro said. “We were not surprised to find that the difference between these behaviors can be predicted by individuals’ sources of self-esteem.”

LET THEM EAT CAKE

The researchers also conducted experiments to understand the relationship among self-esteem, thoughts of death and food choice. After assessing whether or not participants’ bodies contributed significantly to their self-esteem, the researchers asked half of 127 participants questions about their reactions to Sept. 11.

Researchers then asked the participants to choose between two snacks, chocolate cake and fruit salad.

Among women whose bodies did not contribute significantly to their self-esteem, 94 percent chose chocolate cake when their sense of mortality was high; only 43.8 percent of those women chose cake with their sense of mortality was not elevated. Just 23 percent of women whose bodies contributed greatly to self-esteem chose cake when their sense of mortality was high; 37.5 percent chose cake when their sense of mortality was low.

“If you are using all of your resources to focus on some important aspect of self-esteem in order to cope with thoughts of death, and body esteem is not central to you, then you simply have fewer resources in play to help you resist that tempting piece of chocolate cake,” Shiv said.

In contrast, the chocolate cake and fruit salad experiment did not produce significant results for men. “Chocolate is highly rated as a comfort food for women, but not for men,” Shiv said. “Had we chosen a different ‘bad’ food, such as french fries or pizza, we may have found more significant results for men.”

“Consumer behavior in response to external events can be difficult to predict,” Bettman said. “However, we feel that our research has helped to explain some of the behaviors that seemed unusual after Sept. 11. People’s behaviors change in ways that help to boost their self-esteem when thoughts of the possibility of their own death are more salient, and sources of self-esteem differ for different people. That is why some people indulged in food or spending, whereas others contributed more or spent more time at church or with families. The things one values most become even more prominent when one’s mortality is more salient.”