Human suffering is an inherent aspect of the human condition, and we encounter instances of it in various forms on a daily basis. Through news reports on global tragedies, viral content depicting suffering, or even empathizing with fictional characters’ hardships in different media, we are constantly exposed to the pain of others. Hedonic principles of emotion regulation suggest that people innately look for pleasurable experiences to repair negative emotions in an attempt to feel good. This would mean that consumers turn to more lighthearted as a means of “emotional repair” after being exposed to human suffering—but is this the case?
In a recent Journal of Marketing Research article, researchers Stephanie Lin, Taly Reich, and Tamar Kreps offer a fresh perspective on this notion: They argue that after experiencing human suffering, consumers do not prefer hedonic choices. Across five studies, the authors show that, following encounters with human suffering, individuals may perceive seeking mood-enhancing consumption to be morally wrong. Because human suffering has a moral component that prompts us to empathize and care for others’ well-being, individuals may feel compelled to prolong negative emotions instead. In fact, people may feel guilty about engaging in hedonism when others are suffering. The findings held for different samples and for different types of visual content (documentaries, films, and short videos).
Following encounters with human suffering, individuals may perceive seeking mood-enhancing consumption to be morally wrong.
The results of this study highlight the strategic importance of timing when it comes to presenting hedonic content. The findings are stronger for individuals in which morality is an important part of their identity. The results can be mitigated when the hedonic content presented after experiencing suffering is morally relevant. One example of this would be a hedonic experience that benefits those who suffered.
Relevance for Marketing Managers
When consumers experience human suffering, they feel it is immoral to immediately feel better, which subsequently leads them to avoid consumption that provides pleasure. These findings hold significant relevance for managers. This project provides insights into how to target ads and content, particularly in the digital media landscape. Brands must design their advertising campaigns in a way that considers the other content consumers may encounter. If consumers engage with content associated with suffering, they’ll be less likely to then choose to view more hedonic content. Therefore, brands should target their ads to align with consumers’ interests and habitual consumption patterns.
Moreover, companies should consider sequencing the choices that they present to consumers. For instance, media companies should prioritize the display of non-suffering-related content before displaying hedonic content. Conversely, it may be opportune to present consumption experiences that evoke a sense of morality immediately after exposure to content depicting suffering.
Given the project’s relevance in understanding consumer decision making, we reached out to the authors to learn more about this study:
Q: Regarding practical recommendations, we could extend the analysis by using a mix that generates a set of negative emotions in the context of moral well-being. For example, could this be used in charity campaigns?
A: Yes, our research suggests that after viewing human suffering, people would rather see things like charitable appeals rather than fun frivolous content. We have some other work (in progress) on how sequences on social media are upsetting when they are about human suffering followed by frivolous content relative to human suffering followed by morally relevant positive content (similar to our choice studies, but in a social media sequencing context).
Q: In terms of consequential outcomes, you provide many interesting findings regarding participants choosing what content to watch or what activities to engage in after experiencing human suffering. Would your results hold even when participants pay for the subsequent experiences? For instance, what if they see the content and then have to order food? Would they choose more food that retains their emotions or more food that provides them with pleasure, such as unhealthy food?
A: We are currently thinking about our results in the context of purchase behavior. We have a large dataset that suggests that, in a real context, people spend less money following a human tragedy. Follow-up correlational data suggest that people avoid spending specifically on hedonic (versus utilitarian) products. We are designing experiments to test these findings.
Q: What were the most surprising or unexpected findings of this project?
A: I do not think any of the findings were particularly “surprising” per se, as we theorized strongly about the studies ahead of time. I guess one finding that we did not hypothesize and found intriguing was the fact that people didn’t feel the need to keep feeling negatively about purity violations. This is quite a peripheral finding with regard to the rest of the paper, so we do not pay much attention to it in the text, but I think that there are some interesting implications for that finding regarding morality and emotions. In the future, I will be interested in further examining that effect.
Q: How much theoretical knowledge did you decide to provide respondents with? For example, with the passage on the genocide in Rwanda, how did you determine the degree of precision that would guarantee homogeneous anchoring among respondents with heterogeneous prior knowledge of the subject?
A: Although it is possible that our effect would be moderated by prior familiarity with a topic, we reasoned that we should expect our effect to occur even for those who know relatively little about it. Thus, we were not concerned about heterogeneous prior knowledge, as we thought the effect should occur across the population generally (perhaps weaker among those who have less familiarity).
Q: How long do you expect these effects to last? Will people likely choose to sustain their emotions for immediate subsequent choices only or, will these effects affect decisions beyond the immediate ones? How would the products influence the decision-making process when there are many simultaneous decisions at play? Is one decision that shows “moral appropriateness” enough for consumers?
A: We discuss this in the General Discussion [of the full study]. First, consumers do not find hedonic consumption to be inappropriate following content about human suffering if the hedonic content is morally relevant (rather than frivolous; Study 4a). Second, consumers who saw themselves as more moral felt especially strongly that hedonic consumption would be inappropriate and thus showed a stronger preference to avoid hedonic consumption (Study 4b). Together, these mediation and moderation results provide strong evidence that consumers avoid hedonic consumption following content about human suffering, specifically because of what they see as their moral duties in this situation.
Q: What about the voluntary consumption of the macabre or even pain to reconnect with the saturated self (Scott et al. 2017)? Respondents, especially those who claim to be more moral (Study 4), seem saturated; rather than repairing their emotions with hedonistic consumption. Can we anticipate self-punishment or catharsis?
A: Broadly, we do not think about our effect as one of self-punishment but rather as one of other-focused emotions. That is, they feel that others deserve empathy and respect.
Read the Full Study for Complete Details
Read the full article:
Stephanie C. Lin, Taly Reich, and Tamar A. Kreps (2023), “Feeling Good or Feeling Right: Sustaining Negative Emotion After Exposure to Human Suffering,” Journal of Marketing Research, 60 (3), 543–63. doi:10.1177/00222437221126917
Rebecca Scott, Julien Cayla, and Bernard Cova (2017). “Selling Pain to the Saturated Self,” Journal of Consumer Research, 44 (1), 22–43.