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Study: Pondering mortality may lead to overeating

August 18, 2008

Could watching the latest “Law and Order” marathon cause extra weight gain?

The latest research in the Journal of Consumer Research from ASU marketing professor Naomi Mandel shows that people who are exposed to death-related images and ponder their own mortality tend to overeat.

Mandel and Dirk Smeesters, a professor from the Netherlands, worked together to conduct several experiments in the United States and in Europe. They asked people to write an essay about their feelings toward their own deaths. Participants then checked off items they wanted to buy from a grocery list.

The researchers found that those who wrote about their deaths wanted to consume or spend more than those in a control group who wrote about undergoing a medical procedure.

“People who thought about the idea of dying chose to consume more food in general, whether it was healthy or not, to put these thoughts out of their mind,” Mandel says.

The researchers found that an explanation for the overconsumption is cultural standards. In the United States, people tend to overspend on luxury items and overeat to meet a high standard of living. This made participants wonder if they had not lived up to these expectations.

“They started to question whether they have made a significant mark on the universe,” Mandel says. “If they felt they had not lived up to cultural standards, they wanted to escape from awareness by eating.”

Smeesters and Mandel explain this process using a theory called “escape from self-awareness.”

When people with low self-esteem are confronted with their own mortality, they begin to get self-conscious and uncomfortable, so they overconsume to rid such thoughts from their mind, the researchers say.

During their experiments, the researchers placed a mirror in front of the participants, and found that it caused people to have a desire to consume less.

“This demonstrates self-awareness,” Mandel says. “People did not want to watch themselves overconsuming.”

The pair found that the practical application of this new research would be for marketing firms to advertise during crime shows, or during news programming.

“Consumers, especially those with a lower self-esteem, might be more susceptible to overconsumption when faced with images of death during the news or their favorite crime-scene investigation shows,” Smeesters says.