Eating in the face of death

Global and Strategic Marketing Research Centre

Dr Aulona Ulqinaku is a lecturer of Marketing at Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds. Her research interests cover the effect of psychological threats (such as low self-esteem, social exclusion, fear of death, nihilism, etc.) on individuals and their consumption preferences and choices.

Every year on the 1st and 2nd November, people in several countries around the world commemorate the memory of deceased beloved ones. These days are known as the Day of the Dead (Dìa de Muertos or Día de los Muertos), which is a Mexican holiday celebrated on the 1st November, and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, which is a more western Christian tradition observed on the 2nd November.  

During these days, people focus on remembering the departed, saying prayers in remembrance for the souls of those who have died, and visiting their graves. These days are filled with reminders of death, which in literature is referred to as “mortality salience”.  

Mortality salience is the most impactful fear one can experience and it is defined as the fear that is activated when one thinks of their own death or that of losing someone dear. Mortality salience can also be activated by something small and simple such as watching a movie or listening to the news, or even by unconsciously standing on the street with the signs of a funeral service somewhere in the background. With whole days such as the 1st and 2nd November dedicated to the reminder of death, it is no wonder that these dates create a lot of mortality salience. 

Why should marketing professionals be interested in mortality salience?  

Mortality salience affects our behaviour as individuals, making us perceive time as a continuous interconnection between the past, the present and the future. This makes us rely more on supernatural agents such as angels, devils, ancestor spirits, religion and God, or leads us to take greater risks. However, mortality salience can also affect our behaviour as consumers, driving us towards more materialistic consumption or towards preferring vintage products over modern ones.  

Sometimes, consumption patterns when reminders of death are salient can be unhealthy. For instance, after reminders of mortality, consumers may engage in unhealthy compensatory consumption, to cope with psychological threats, and in some circumstances, they may overconsume unhealthy food such as sweets and desserts. Working in collaboration with Dr Gülen Sarial-Abi, Copenhagen Business School, and Dr Elaine Kinsella, University of Limerick, we investigated a possible way to prevent the unhealthy behaviour after reminders of death – talking about heroes.  


Heroes are brave, they’re fearless, they would even risk their lives to save others. While there are many types of heroes, literature suggests that human heroes, rather than superheroes, are able to provide greater benefits to individuals’ psychological wellbeing.  

There is some evidence from previous research that heroes provide psychological resources to individuals, especially when people feel threatened. What had been unexplored, however, was whether being reminded of heroes, because they are considered so powerful, would make the individual feel more powerful too. When people feel powerful, they are able to cope with threatening situations better because they perceive they have better control over their resources. So, we wondered, could thinking about heroes diminish the unwanted consumption effects of mortality salience? 

We decided that there wasn’t a more appropriate, natural context than the Day of the Dead and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed to conduct an experiment to test our prediction – that talking about our heroes can defeat the unhealthy consumption patterns arising from mortality salience.  

On these two dates, in 2017, we randomly stopped people on the streets of a major Italian city and asked them about their routine related to the Day of the Dead and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed and then we randomly asked half of them to talk to us about their hero. As a thank you, we offered all respondents a bowl of sweets. They took as many as they wanted, and we recorded the number of sweets that were eaten as a measure of unhealthy compensatory consumption after mortality reminders. 

In order to have a base for comparison, we also collected data some days later (5th and 6th November) when there wasn’t such a focus on death, and again we asked half of the respondents to talk about their hero.  

Interestingly, but in line with what we were expecting, the results of this study showed that when consumers experience mortality threats (eg during Day of the Dead and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed), those that talked about heroes consumed fewer sweets than those who did not talk about heroes.  

This was not the same in the comparison group when we did the experiment a few days later when the exposure to mortality reminders was a lot lower. We did not find a significant difference in the number of sweets participants consumed whether they were reminded of heroes or not. This suggests that thinking about heroes does not generally reduce the consumption of sweets, but it is effective when there are mortality reminders. 

So here’s something to think about on the 1st and 2nd November for those of us around the world who remember and honour the memory of our departed - we may find ourselves craving more junk food as a way to cope with the presence of mortality cues. Thinking about our heroes can prevent unhealthy consumption in moments when reminders of our mortality are particularly strong.  

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.