Protecting yourself

Can a fear of death lead to overspending?

Kelly Dilworth

When I’m feeling anxious, I like to wander through rows of high-end pantry items at my nearest specialty grocer and marvel at the one-of-a-kind confections, such as chili lime lollipops or rosemary-and-thyme maple toffee sunflower seeds.

It’s soothing to throw a jar of heirloom tomato jam into my shopping cart or spend 20 minutes picking out an scented, eco-friendly candle. Overspending at luxury grocery stores has become my personal version of retail therapy.

Focusing on tangible goods that I can hold in my hand and briefly enjoy helps contain the nagging feeling that something, somewhere is amiss. If I’m worried about the future or about my health or about the well-being of a loved one, it helps to pour my energy into something smaller and more palpable.

According to the psychologist April Benson, many people grapple with anxiety about death in the same way: Rather than inhabit their fears and accept the reality of their impermanence, they try to soothe their uncomfortable feelings with material rewards that are definite and predictable or with products that could potentially outlive them.

“If we can’t control or even comprehend our world, at least we can control what we own,” wrote Benson in a Nov. 2 blog post about a link between fears of death and overspending.

In her blog post, Benson points to a 2014 study in the Journal of Psychology and Marketing that found when people are reminded by an advertisement that they are going to die one day, they become significantly more likely to buy the advertised product, even if the product has nothing to do with health or safety.

“Findings suggest that ‘killer ads’ trigger unconscious consumer fears that may be alleviated by the urge to buy,” write study authors Emmy Das, Rolien Duiven, Jolien Arendsen, Ivar Vermeulen in the report.

When marketers remind consumers of their impending death, they might as well skip making more overt appeals to buy a particular product. Just thinking about death is apparently enough to push some consumers over the purchasing edge — no matter what they’re buying, the study found.

“Findings suggest that this strategy may be an extremely effective (although perhaps not highly ethical) marketing tool,” write the authors. “Advertisements that triggered a fear of death increased purchase intentions for familiar and unfamiliar brands, for healthy and unhealthy products and for products that did or did not provide a source of self-esteem.”

Instead of making consumers feel a certain way – such as safer or more beautiful – the act of buying products instead appears to subconsciously assuage consumers and soothe their existential fears.

“This suggests that people are not simply buying goods that will lengthen their lives, but to assuage the anxiety of an unknown, future demise,” commented the psychologist April Benson in her analysis of the study.

The wrong approach
The problem, says Benson, is that purchasing material goods in order to soothe your existential anxiety only works in the very short-term and can potentially lead to much worse outcomes than an uncomfortable feeling that eventually will pass.

Things, no matter how long they endure, or how much they link us to the material world, can’t save us from death,” writes Benson in her blog. “The more we buy things with this fool-hearted hope, the more time, energy, money — and rich life we let pass us by. When we are buying the newest iPhone, when we have a perfectly good year-old edition, or buying $500 shoes that we know will pinch our toes, we may actually be exchanging our money for a pipe dream.”

Rather than soothe your anxiety with the quick hit of exchanging cash, you are better off focusing your energy on more lasting pleasures, such as building stronger relationships with your friends and family or creating more soul-sustaining memories.

“Spend every last moment doing what fills you with joy,” says Benson, “instead of spending every last dollar in hopes of more moments.”

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