When less is more: Exploring the interplay between psychological threats and consumer wellbeing, attitudes, and sustainable behaviour


Psychological threats (e.g., low self-esteem, social exclusion, or fear of death) can affect a series of individual behaviour (Burke et al., 2010), such as risky decisions related to gambling or driving (Hart et al., 2010), overconsumption (Ferraro et al., 2015), or overspending (Kaser & Sheldon, 2000). Although a series of events can trigger psychological threats, they can have detrimental effects on individuals (e.g., over-drinking or consuming illegal drugs, aggression, rudeness, gambling, etc.). Research has suggested that based on what companies offer in terms of brands and products, or how organizations frame their messages, could make consumers mitigate these threats and avoid unhealthy consumption patterns. This proposal adds to the existing knowledge by drawing attention to previously ignored ways in which marketing can help mitigate psychological threats, and thus, by reducing some harmful consequences of them.

The overall project features three research projects on the consequences of psychological threats on consumer behaviour and how brand communications can make consumers mitigate threats:

  1. The relationship between mortality salience (i.e., fear of death), variety-seeking and sustainable consumer behaviour 
  2. The effects of mortality salience’s on consumer wellbeing and decision-making – the role of personal power and control
  3. How brand communications in a caring or assertive language can mitigate self-esteem and social exclusion threats, respectively.

In Project 1, we aim to investigate the psychological mechanisms underpinning response to climate change and how this interacts with marketing approaches to encourage or inhibit sustainable consumer behaviour. Appeals towards sustainability are usually highly emotive and framed as catastrophes that lead to the destruction of life. This arises mortality salience, which has been shown to lead to overconsumption (e.g., Ferraro et al., 2015). We predict that mortality salience arising from sustainability appeals could also be linked to increased variety-seeking consumption behaviour. Both overconsumption and variety-seeking would lead to more waste, which would harm sustainability efforts of these campaigns. We suggest that one way to mitigate the adverse effects of mortality salience on overconsumption is by providing a sense of personal control. Perceived personal control has been shown to help individuals cope with a series of psychological threats (Anderson & Berdahl, 2002). Accordingly, sustainability appeals highlighting personal control could boost sustainable behaviour, in place of highly fearful appeals.