One Way to Deal With a Fear of Death: Go Shopping

The more creative you are, research has shown, the less likely you are to be bothered by thoughts of your own impending demise. But if creativity isn’t really your thing — or even if you’re a pro artist who still has a nagging case of existential blues — you might want to try shopping your troubles away.

In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Affairs, researchers examined how members of two extremes dealt with the concept of death. On one side were so-called “anti-consumers,” whom the authors defined as people who reject “a worldview that consumption is desirable” and attempt to “reduce the acquisition, use, and disposal of commoditized goods and services.” On the other side were “over-consumers” — basically the opposite of the first group.

In the first part of the study, participants took a series of tests designed to measure their frugality and materialism. Afterward, half of the subjects wrote a paragraph on how they felt about their own death, accompanied by a description of what they thought would happen to them once they pass. The other half, as the control group, completed a similar exercise describing their feelings about a trip to the dentist. Once they were done with the writing prompts, both groups filled out a survey gauging their willingness to spend money on various purchases (one question, for example, asked them what they would do if their fridge stopped working, with answers ranging from “Definitely buy a new one for $600” on one side of the spectrum to “Definitely fix it for $200” on the other, and room for more ambivalent answers in between).

People who weren’t all that interested in shopping to begin with, the researchers found, weren’t swayed much in either direction by thoughts of their own mortality. Among the super-shoppers, though, it made a big difference: People who were already spendier than average before being forced to ponder death were even more so afterward — suggesting, the researchers argued, that the “over-consumers” were turning to consumption as an emotional salve. Or maybe they were just operating under the assumption that life is short, so heck, might as well buy the nicest, shiniest new fridge you can. Either way, if ever you needed an excuse for retail therapy, “We’re all going to die one day” is a decent one.

One Way to Deal With a Fear of Death: Go Shopping