Worries about terrorism are at the forefront of our thoughts these days. We were rattled by brazen attacks on innocent Parisians. They were bookended by numerous incidents of terrorism across the world --- from Beirut and Egypt to Israel and Mali, and even here within the United States. To add to the misery, statistics from reliable sources inform us that terrorism is escalating globally. For instance, the Global Terrorism Index reports that deaths from terrorism have increased nine-fold since 2000, and by 80% within the past year alone. More than 32,000 people lost their lives to terrorists in 67 different countries in 2014. If this trend continues, the future looks bleak.
Terrorist attacks have all kinds of large-scale consequences for society, from affecting political and voter priorities, to encouraging acceptance of draconian policing and surveillance practices. It can be argued, however, that the most significant effects of terrorism are economic in nature. In this post, I want to consider how terrorist attacks affect consumer behaviors more narrowly, and work out who wins and who loses as a result.
Regardless of whether it occurs in our neighborhood or across the world, every terror attack causes us worry and affects our thoughts and our actions. A terrorist attack triggers two opposing consumption impulses. Experiencing loss of control, our first impulse is to get out (and stay out) of the way of future attacks and to be safe. If this means abandoning our entrenched habits and changing what, where, and how we buy things, so be it. At the same time, seeing a terrorist attack in the news heightens the awareness of our own mortality. This sparks an impulse to enjoy our limited and uncertain life to the fullest. We behave in greedy and materialistic ways.
For obvious reasons, commercial and crowded venues such as malls, movie theaters, trains, buses, restaurants, and hotels are prime terrorist targets. These are the very places we frequent as consumers and so, after an attack, we naturally experience a loss of control. After all, people just like us have suffered terribly, even lost their lives, for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time while doing normal, everyday things. Could this happen to us the next time we are in a store, on a train, or watching a movie?
When a person loses control over any aspect of their life, they will go to great lengths to try and get it back. A common way to gain control is by changing behavior that is likely to put them in harm’s way, even if the behavior is entrenched and habitual. Consumer psychologists Michal Herzenstein, Sharon Horsky, and Steve Posavac recently studied the effects of the loss of control due to terrorism on Israeli consumers. (Many studies of effects of terrorism on consumers are done in Israel because Israeli citizens have had to deal with numerous terrorist attacks over the past two decades). The authors found that to deal with their lost sense of control, Israeli consumers engaged in a variety of avoidant behaviors, disrupting their normal buying habits drastically. A common strategy is to stop shopping in stores and malls and migrate to online buying. Another is to change one’s normal shopping patterns to avoid risky situations. A third one is to move more consumption back into the home. After 9/11, people ate and entertained at home more often and restaurant sales fell off a cliff. In a Money magazine article, reporter Amy Marcus provides other examples of Israelis changing their shopping times and even abandoning favored stores:
“My husband used to meet his friends at 11:30 p.m. to buy groceries, figuring that terrorists are unlikely to attack a supermarket so late in the evening. Likewise, Ofra Goldman, the Jerusalem-based art lecturer, says she drives an hour out of her way to buy clothes for her girls, instead of shopping at the mall five minutes from her apartment.”
For most of us, a deadly terrorist attack’s immediate effect is to produce a heightened awareness of our own mortality and the briefness of the time we have left. And this heightened sense of what psychologists call “mortality salience” produces lasting effects on consumers’ behaviors. It increases the appeal of goods and services that provide people with a sense of comfort and stability. After 9/11, Americans not only cocooned by staying home more, but they also gravitated towards foods like macaroni & cheese, mashed potatoes, lasagna, and chocolate desserts. This makes sense; nutrition research shows that when stressed, people tend to choose such comfort foods.
Consumers resort to using coping mechanisms to deal with mortality angst. One coping mechanism is to seek what marketing scholar Elizabeth Hirschman has called “secular immortality” by acquiring and collecting materialistic possessions. For instance, in the aftermath of 9/11, American consumers heeded President Bush’s call to go shopping “and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed” by buying homes, cars, appliances, furniture, and electronic gadgets in record numbers.
There are also a number of studies which show that exposure to thinking about death leads to heightened materialistic behaviors and lowered concern for others or the environment. In one survey conducted in 2003, consumers who were more fearful of becoming a terrorism victim were more interested in buying branded goods and were also likely to consume compulsively. The authors concluded that:
“As mortality salience exacerbates existential anxiety, people can use materialistic consumption as a means to buffer such anxiety. People seem to find comfort in material goods, probably because these goods confer symbolic meaning and allow individuals to transcend their mortal lives through a seemingly enduring cultural artifact.”
In other words, in an effort to deal with our death-related anxiety, we become selfish and self-serving, and use consumption of status objects as a way to do so. Research on consumer ethics also points to the same conclusion. In one study from 1994, ethicists found that when compared to consumers in relatively peaceful Egypt (at the time), those living in terror-prone Lebanon were less idealistic, more Machiavellian, and viewed a variety of questionable consumer practices as more acceptable. They were less sensitive to moral issues.
These two consumption impulses beg the question about the net effects of terrorist attacks on different constituents.
None of us can control when or where the next terrorist attack will happen. But we can certainly curb our consumption impulses, act responsibly, and do our bit to fight the terrorists in our roles as consumers.