Mortality is a weighty, often difficult topic. Some avoid thinking about it altogether, while others try to come to terms with it: research suggests a fear of death can be ameliorated by unexpected tactics including hugging a teddy or listening to death metal.
It’s also been posited that a fear of mortality can lead to materialism: trying to accrue as many possessions or as much wealth before death as a way of managing existential terror. But a paper in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that thinking about mortality might have a different impact on behaviour, making people more likely to give away their possessions.
The team, led by Lea Dunn at the University of Washington, first asked participants to bring along a favourite book that they would be happy to give to a local charity, Books for All!, which helps families in poverty build their home libraries. Half of the participants were asked to imagine their own death and describe the emotions they felt, while the other half wrote about their typical day. Participants were then split into two different conditions: the signing condition, in which they were told to write a brief inscription before being asked to donate their book, and the no signing condition, in which they were asked to donate their book immediately.
As expected, participants who wrote about their own death were significantly more likely to donate than those who wrote about their day. But this was only true for those who had written an inscription in the book: thinking about death didn’t make it any more likely that people would donate an unsigned book.
In a second study, participants again either wrote about their death or a typical day. They were then asked to describe a self-connected possession — something that they consider meaningful and close to their sense of self but which they no longer used (e.g. an old piece of clothing) — before being given information about a charity engaging in a goods drive. They were then told they would be donating their meaningful possession to the charity, and could choose to donate it with or without a short signed message on a donation nameplate. Those who had thought about their own mortality were significantly more likely to choose to include an inscription with their donation than those in the “typical day” condition.
The team suggests that participants who thought about their death in these studies had a greater desire for “transcendence”: the idea that one is part of something greater than the self. An object that has a personalised message, and so has particular personal resonance, allows for this in a small way. It’s the same logic as a gravestone, or a park bench with a plaque on: a tangible way for someone’s legacy to continue beyond the physical self.
In a further study the team looked specifically at transcendence as a motivator. Participants were asked to imagine joining an organisation they would be a member of for the rest of their lives: in the transcendent condition, they were told the organisation would always have a new generation of members, while in the non-transcendent condition participants were told it would cease to exist when its current members were gone.
Results suggested that members of the non-transcendent group who wrote about their death were more likely to donate a personal item to charity than those involved in the transcendent one — indicating that, for the latter group, their need for transcendence had already been met (indeed, these people were more likely to believe membership of the organisation would allow part of their identity to live on past their death).
None of the results held when participants were told their item could be broken up or recycled. The team suggests that a broken up item loses its potential for transcendence, and is therefore not seen as a way of continuing the self after death.
In the real world, these findings could be useful for charitable organisations: fundraisers or marketers could use transcendence as a way to nudge people into donating. It may also work as a tool for selling consumer goods: positioning a luxury item as an heirloom, for example. However, this does come with some potential issues – being confronted with mortality isn’t always comfortable. Messaging would therefore have to be subtle or sensitive.