Why the fear of death makes us go shopping

Whether it will put off the inevitable is another question altogether

Sad woman
(Image credit: <a href="http://shutr.bz/1hfpxuI">(Courtesy Shutterstock)</a><a></a>)

Charged with restoring a nation's battered confidence in the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush had an odd recommendation for the American people: Go shopping.

"Get down to Disney World in Florida," he said. "Take your families and enjoy life."

The remarks, intended to buoy consumer spending in the face of an economic downturn, came back to haunt Bush as critics needled him for responding to a national tragedy with what, in retrospect, sounds like pretty vapid advice.

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But in confronting a dramatic reminder of our mortality, it turns out that Bush's reaction may be all too common. A two-part study led by Michigan State University marketing professor Ayalla Ruvio shows how post-traumatic stress actually reinforces our need for the shiny and new.

In the first part of the study, questionnaires were sent to two groups: First, an Israeli community living near the Gaza Strip during six months of near-daily rocket attacks in 2007. The second, a town far removed from the fighting whose residents were aware of the attacks. According to Elizabeth Preston at Inkfish, "The questionnaires were meant to ferret out a few different answers about people."

Did they experience post-traumatic symptoms such as nightmares or memory loss? Did they cope with negative feelings by buying things? How often did they return from a shopping trip with items they hadn't meant to purchase? Other questions assessed how materialistic the subjects were — did they place a lot of value on owning nice things? [Inkfish]

Unsurprisingly, individuals deemed "highly materialistic" reported higher levels of post-traumatic stress, and their purchases reflected this accordingly.

For the second part of the study, researchers looked at the psychological state and spending habits of 855 U.S. consumers. This time, a similar survey was designed to capture the interests of a wide range of Americans, both geographically and culturally, and included questions like, "How much do you think about your own death?" Again, a clear correlation between impulse shopping and a fear of the inevitable was established.

But while shopping may soothe us in the short term, it can have perilous long-term effects. Researchers suggest that low self-esteem coupled with a lingering fear of the reaper may be responsible for intensifying post-traumatic stress. Owning things may give those who fear death a false sense of permanence in an impermanent world.

"When the going gets tough, the materialistic go shopping," says Ruvio. "And this compulsive and impulsive spending is likely to produce even greater stress and lower well-being. Essentially, materialism appears to make bad events even worse."

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Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for TheWeek.com. Previously, he was a tech reporter at TIME. His work has also appeared in Men's Journal, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among other places. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.