October 07, 2005
Feelings Of Mortality Change Charitable Gift Sizes And Food Choices

Feelings of mortality change charitable giving and food choices.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks many Americans reported dramatic changes in their behavior, from increased church attendance and charitable giving to -- at the other end of the scale -- overeating and overspending.

Intrigued by these anecdotal reports, Baba Shiv, associate professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and colleagues Rosellina Ferraro and James R. Bettman from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business set out to discover what might be driving these changed behaviors. Their paper, "Let Us Eat and Drink, for Tomorrow We Shall Die," is published in the June 2005 Journal of Consumer Research.

They discovered that when confronted with thoughts of death, people tend to act in ways that will boost their self-esteem. They also have fewer cognitive resources to resist behaviors that are not central to their self-image. People for whom being slim or fit is important to their self-image, for instance, will not be as likely to overeat, but if physical appearance isn't as important, the willpower to resist that fudge sundae will plummet.

I've long suspected that terrorists are motivated in large part by a desire to manage their own feelings of self esteem. They carry out terrorist acts as a way to feel more efficacious and in control.

As a basis for the study, the researchers built upon an existing body of work on "Terror Management Theory," which attempts to explain how people cope when faced with a threat to their mortality. The theory holds that when reminded of their own mortality people first tend to cope in two ways: forcefully defending their cultural worldview (which could manifest itself in forms such as acting more aggressively toward someone with different political beliefs); or behaving in ways most likely to bolster their self-esteem.

The researchers decided to test the second part of this theory by examining two possible sources of self-esteem: physical appearance and being virtuous.

People who consider being virtuous as more important donate more when reminded of their mortality.

Researchers told 115 student subjects that they would be entered into a $200 lottery as part of their compensation for participating in a study. All participants first answered a questionnaire that measured the importance of virtue to their self-esteem. Half were then asked questions about the prospects of their own deaths while the other half were asked about dental pain. At the end, subjects in each group were asked how much of the $200 they would be willing to donate to charity if they won the lottery.

Participants for whom virtue was an important source of self-esteem offered significantly higher donations (an average of $65) when reminded of their mortality than when they were not (an average of just $34.50). Participants for whom virtue was not an important source of self-esteem actually donated less when reminded of their own deaths (an average of $20.36 compared with $28.60).

I wonder about the motivations here. Is the reminder of mortality more likely to result in virtuous behavior among those religious believers who expect they'll some day be judged by God in the afterlife? How would the results of this experiment differ with believers in different religions?

Do those who respond to reminders of mortality by donating money otherwise act more virtuous on average as compared to those who do not respond by upping their donations? What other differences are there between people who attach high importance to virtuous behavior and those who do not?

Will charities start running ads reminding people of their mortality as a way to boost donations? Or how about charities that help the homeless? Would they get more donations if they reminded people that health and financial reversals might some day make them homeless too?

Next we come to the very important choice between chocolate cake and fruit salad when placed in the context of future death.

A second part of the study investigated body image as a source of self-esteem. Participants were first asked questions to determine how their attitude toward their bodies contributed to their sense of self. Half were then asked about their reactions to September 11 while the others were asked about a recent local fire in which a building was destroyed but no one was hurt.

Afterward, all participants were given the choice between two snacks -- chocolate cake or fruit salad -- ostensibly as part of their reward for participating in the study.

Among women whose bodies contributed greatly to their self-esteem, only 23 percent chose cake when their sense of mortality was high; a dramatic drop from the 38 percent that chose cake when their sense of mortality was low.

These numbers make perfect sense, according to Shiv. "When people are reminded of their deaths, they are desperately seeking to cope, and if a decision can help them boost their self-esteem, they will make that decision. Thus women whose bodies were important to their self-esteem were much more likely to reject the offer of chocolate cake when their sense of mortality was heightened."

However, among women whose bodies did not contribute significantly to their sense of self-esteem, 94 percent chose chocolate cake when reminded of 9/11 -- more than twice as many as those who chose cake when their sense of mortality was low (44 percent).

"If you are using all 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 to help you resist that tempting piece of chocolate cake," said Shiv.

I see the use of chocolate cake in this experiment as unfortunate. A lot of people think that chocolate makes them feel better when unhappy. This is especially so when heart broken over the end of a romance. So maybe the people who ate more chocolate cake when reminded of 9/11 were self-medicating.

A heightened sense of mortality did not cause men to resist chocolate cake.

Interestingly, there was no difference between the men's choice of cake or fruit salad based on their sense of mortality. The researchers attributed this to the fact that physical appearance is more of a "hot button" for women than for men.

I wonder if men would more likely choose high protein foods in response to a heightened sense of mortality on the theory that protein is needed to build muscles and muscles help in self defense.

I wonder how much of the response reported above is due to generalized feelings of stress versus feelings of lowered self esteem. Would other forms of stressors cause the same response? Or in response to stressors that do not remind us of our mortality would more people eat chocolate as a way to reduce the feelings of stress?

In the future the ability to manage one's emotional state might reduce charitable behavior. If people feel up and unstressed all the time I bet they are a lot less likely to donate to charities. Add in some future nanotech implants that automatically release compounds that block stress or negative emotions and the desire to engage in charitable behavior might decline markedly. I'd love to see a study of charitable giving of depressed people before and aftey they go on Prozac or Paxil. I bet anti-depressants reduce charitable giving by emotionally distancing people from those who suffer.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 October 07 03:53 PM  Brain Economics

Brock said at October 7, 2005 5:24 PM:

"I'd love to see a study of charitable giving of depressed people before and aftey they go on Prozac or or Paxil. I bet anti-depressants reduce charitable giving by emotionally distancing people from those who suffer."

I've suddenly realized how to cure Europe of Socialism.

Tree said at October 7, 2005 6:45 PM:

In case no one has told you yet, Things Break, Things Die, and in the end, so will you.

Do you want to leave a good looking corpse? Or some other legacy?

But chocolate cake is good. Especially after one has written that check to the Heifer Project.

Still feel sorry for girls who can't eat chocolate cake. Poor skinny girls. No meat on them, how will they survive the next pandemic flu?

Hunter in Darkness said at October 8, 2005 6:57 AM:

Back in undergraduate school, x years ago, I had a professor who would read us a study like this one every week. Then we, as a class, would proceed to dissect it, pointing out every aspect of fallacious reasoning, every self-serving assumption, every unsupported conclusion. The snippets posted here would take days, DAYS, to unravel.

As for drawing conclusions between correlations and proof, basic psych will tell you that a correlation is proof of squat. It is a relationship; no cause or effect is implied or can be inferred.

I seem to recall that chocolate does actually make people feel better. This is believed to be for several reasons. First, chocolate is an unusually complex food. It contains more "flavor" elements than most foods - by several multipliers. (Coffee is another complex food.) People show marked preferences for eating complex foods. It is thought that this experience is enjoyable. It makes sense that experiencing something enjoyable could make someone feel better. The second, more likely reason is that chocolate contains huge numbers of chemicals. Some of these chemicals, when eaten, are similar to neurotransmitters (a word from that class, again; Damn you, Dr. Randall) released when a person is in love. They give a high. Thus, one eats chocolate, chemical in chocolate reacts with body, body releases chemical, body feels better. Sounds reasonable.

Bob Badour said at October 8, 2005 9:28 AM:

It's hard to say what the average change will be for depressed people. Many depressed people would not contribute because they would see no point in taking any action. Others would contribute because they would see no point in keeping their money or to self-medicate. Thus for people with major depression, the change could go either way by a much larger amount than the average change.

However, having experienced the side-effects of anti-depressants, I doubt they would make anyone feel all that distant from the unfortunate.

Oli said at October 13, 2005 7:59 AM:

The one aspect that this study doesn't take into consideration is a willingness to face your own mortality.
I ride a motorbike, and during an hour of spirited riding, I must think of my own violent death at least 6 six times an hour!
People who do extreme sports have the same thoughts - and it is very good - Without it, you wouldn't be able to put your life in context.

It would be interesting to see if people are more generous after having seen their life flash past their eyes, rather than just be told they are going to die soon!

Mike Linksvayer said at October 17, 2005 10:09 PM:

Housing bubble explained! :)

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