Self-esteem is a powerful driver of behaviour. When your self-esteem is diminished – which can result from myriad different causes, from failing to achieve a task you set for youself, to a harsh comment from someone, or any situation that makes you feel vulnerable or disempowered in some way – you are strongly motivated to rectify the situation and restore your self-esteem. From a psychological perspective, the main way to do this is by reasserting your identity and beliefs in some way, either by disparaging the identities and beliefs of people who don’t share the same ones as you, or by doing things that bolster yours.
What does that mean for consumer behaviour? Previous research has a lot to say about how people change their consumption choices when their self-esteem is diminished by mortality salience – that is, being reminded of their mortality. It might seem harsh to be reminding research participants of their mortality, but a lot of us probably have our mortality made salient multiple times per day. Reading a news article about a fatal car crash or watching a TV show about a murder investigation would be examples of things that would prime us to be more aware of our mortality, and perhaps respond in slightly different ways to things we subsequently encounter. It seems subtle, but that sort of priming can have a powerful effect.
Mortality salience can also come from profound, obvious events – a fair amount of mortality salience research was done following the terror attacks of September 11, when people were reminded acutely and en masse of their mortality. Arndt and colleagues have discussed why consumption in the US jumped by 6% in the months following September 11, suggesting that people acted to enhance their self-esteem via materialism and consumption. The relationship between mortality salience and consumption behaviour is a bit more complicated, though – as you might guess, you’re not going to improve your self-esteem and reassert your values by doing something you don’t care about, so if you’re very non-materialistic then your response to mortality salience won’t be to indulge any materialistic urges. We would act according to our personal values and according to how we think those vaules are perceived by others.
Self-control, which I previously wrote about here and here, could also play a role. When self-esteem is challenged and you make efforts to reassert it, self-control resources could be depleted. That means that if your priority is to bolster your self-esteem by reasserting key parts of your identity, you might funnel your cognitive resources into the domains of your identity that matter most to you, which could leave hardly any cognitive resources for the domains that don’t matter. For example – if eating well is important to you but being financially prudent isn’t, a hit to your self-esteem might cause you to focus more intently on purchasing and eating good food, but maybe you spend way more money than you needed to on way more food than you need because saving money isn’t important to your identity and you self-control was diminished.
These ideas about mortality salience, choice, self-esteem, personal values and self-control were tested to some extent by Ferraro and colleagues in their paper “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die: Effects of mortality salience and self-esteem on self-regulation”. The researchers investigated how mortality salience affected people’s choice-making, taking into account whether the participants might base their self-esteem on things like their body image or their virtuous behaviour (such as donating to charity or making a socially conscious and responsible decision). Participants had their mortality made salient by being asked by the researchers to do things like recall what they were doing and how they felt when they first heard about the September 11 attacks.
The results were in keeping with what you might expect: for example, increased mortality salience caused women to choose chocolate cake over fruit salad if they didn’t strongly base their self-esteem on body image (relative to a more neutral control condition, where mortality was not made as salient), whereas women who did base their self-esteem on body image tended to opt for the fruit salad rather than the chocolate cake (very interestingly, mortality salience had no effect on the chocolate cake vs. fruit salad choice in men, which demonstrates the importance of considering potentially relevant differences between particular groups). In another experiment, participants were given the opportunity to donate part of the money they earned from participating to a charity. Participants who had scored highly in terms of valuing virtue and charity and social consciousness in themselves donated a greater portion of their earnings in the high mortality salience condition (relative to a control condition), whereas those who scored lower and didn’t value that sort of virtue in themselves as much donated less when their mortality was made salient. In short, the evidence supports the notion that mortality salience affects behaviour and causes people to make choices in line with the personal values on which they base their self-esteem.
It is impossible to avoid being made aware of our own mortality in all sorts of ways in daily life, so mortality salience will inevitably affect our behaviour in some way, whether it be subtly or overtly. However, simply being aware of this and being mentally prepared might minimise the impact. For example, as I’ve written about previously, having a basic plan in the back of your mind can help in situations where you might be tempted to priortise short-term, less ideal goals when your self-control is depleted – now that we are aware that a hit to our self-esteem might suck up a lot of our cognitive resources and efforts in order to reassert our personal values and beliefs, having such a plan to guide behaviour and minimise the likelihood of poor choices might be more valuable than ever.