Monthly Archives: July 2014

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Mortality o’ersways their power: effects of mortality salience on choice

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.

Cultural capital: science vs. art

I know that quite a few readers of this blog are interested in the concept of cultural capital – the idea developed by Pierre Bourdieu that non-financial, cultural assets facilitate social mobility and open up opportunities and privileges that might not otherwise be accessible. Dressing a certain way, adopting a certain accent when you speak, driving a particular brand of car – these sorts of things can facilitate your social connections and status. Cultural capital clearly plays a big role in consumption, from conspicuous consumption (i.e. buying identifiable luxury goods in order to broadcast messages to others about your taste, class or economic position) to Veblen goods (i.e. items that are perceived to be desirable because of their high cost and potential exclusivity, and the higher the price of the item, the greater the demand). Making particular consumption choices can enable people to increase their cultural capital, which they can then leverage for potentially significant social effects.

To some extent, cultural capital is often thought of in terms of more arts-based values. The way you decorate your home, the books you read and discuss, the brands and designs you choose to buy, the clothes and accessories you have in your wardrobe – these are all ways of accumulating and conveying cultural capital in what Bourdieu called the “objectified” component of cultural capital, or the objects you own that somehow signify your cultural capital. Sometimes this conceptualisation does seem to skew discussions about cultural capital towards more arts-based things, so what I hadn’t really considered before is how science might be seen as cultural capital. (I’m assuming you guys are interested in science if you’re reading this blog in which I describe, you know, scientific studies and research.)

Conveniently enough, there’s a seminar coming up on just that topic: Moving beyond an arts-based conceptualisation of cultural capital? Debating the concept of ‘science capital’ at the Science Museum in London. I will probably be there and I can certainly report back, if people are interested! But in the meantime, it’s interesting to try to think more broadly about how science (including maths and technology) could be considered to be, or could be used as, cultural capital.

I guess it’s obvious for Bourdieu’s “institutionalised” category of cultural capital, i.e. academic qualifications. For that variety of cultural capital, I think sometimes science could be more powerful than arts, since I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of anyone being laughed at for having, say, a science PhD, whereas I’ve encountered plenty of derogatory attitudes towards art PhDs (e.g. I know of someone who has a PhD in fiction writing, for which she wrote a short sci-fi novel and then wrote a thesis on the themes of her novel – and I know multiple people who find this various combinations of hilarious, ridiculous and offensive).

For the “objectified” category of cultural capital, i.e. objects that people acquire, I guess cultural capital would be in the form of things like having a microscope or telescope at home, having subscriptions to science magazines and journals, having relevant textbooks on the bookshelf. Perhaps even owning and embracing particular bits of technology, e.g. being an early adopter of new technology, or having particular apps on your smartphone (but maybe not having a Google Glass since everyone seems to hate people who wear Google Glass). It’s a bit difficult to convey any sort of scientific sensibility through dress, though… unless you wear a lab coat, but that’s not really feasible or appropriate the majority of the time – although we do know from the classic (and horrifying) Milgram experiments that a lab coat seems to imbue the wearer with an aura of authority. But lab coats aren’t really, say, dinner party attire (or maybe I just need to go to better dinner parties).

As for the “embodied” category of cultural capital, i.e. aspects of your ways of thinking and your character – what would examples of that be? I guess the ability to critically evaluate information in a systematic and logical way would be valuable in terms of contributing to cultural capital. Maybe a skeptical, evidence-based approach to forming judgements and making decisions? Using technical language in the relevant context?

Any thoughts on things that might be considered science-based cultural capital? And are they more or less powerful than the more arts-based ideas of cultural capital? Do pitch in – I know some of you readers out there are very knowledgeable about these sorts of social theories!