Research News

Study: Consumers will covet control after terrorism strikes

If terror strikes increase in the United States, some consumers will keep buying as they always have, but others will withdraw from certain markets to minimize their risk.

“The key issue we’ve identified is, ‘Do you feel like you can control the odds of becoming a victim, should a terrorist attack occur?’” said Steven S. Posavac of Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, one of three authors of the article “Living with Terrorism or Withdrawing in Terror: Perceived Control and Consumer Avoidance.”

Co-written with Michal Herzenstein of the University of Delaware and Sharon Horsky of Bar-llan University in Israel, the article was published in the July/August 2015 issue of Journal of Consumer Behaviour.

To gauge the effects of fear of terrorism, the researchers did much of their research in Israel.

“We started in Israel because what happens in Israel is a good bellwether for the United States if terrorism would increase,” said Posavac, E. Bronson Ingram Professor in Marketing at the Owen School.

According to the study, “almost all informants changed their behavior following terror attacks.” Some altered their consumption choices in extreme ways, for example quitting eating out because restaurants are often targeted by suicide bombers. Others made more subtle changes that allowed them to live without much disruption, for example, continuing to dine out but asking to sit near the kitchen so they could make a quick exit in the event of an attack.

Controlling the danger

Individuals who believed that they could control whether they would become a victim in the event of an attack continued to live their lives without much change. Yair, a 31-year-old man who drives to Tel Aviv every morning for work, said he altered his driving strategy to keep his distance from buses so he felt safer. Often buses are targeted by terrorist bombers.

“I just let a few other cars get between me and the bus, and that way if something happens, I will be safe because of the buffer zone I created,” he said. “If you’re at least two-three cars away from the bus, you’re safe.”

Loss of control = behavior changes

People who felt that they had no control whether they would be hurt should an attack occur displayed the most extreme behavioral changes. Maya, a 28-year-old professional who personally witnessed an attack, said, “After a while my friends realized I’m not the same person. I don’t like to go out anymore. I only want to stay at home. I was really only hurt minimally but the horror I’ve seen with my own eyes will never leave me.”

Consumers like Maya would drive up demand for products like food-delivery services and video-streaming equipment after a terrorist event because these products allow consumers to avoid public places that are attractive to terrorists, Posavac said.

“When consumers believe they have some control over the odds of victimhood in an attack, their behaviors are not materially affected by terrorism threats,” Posavac said. “However, when consumers perceive that the odds of victimhood are uncontrollable, their behavior changes and they become avoidant, abandoning their preferences in the hopes of avoiding the public contexts where most terrorism occurs.”

Although the United States has experienced far less terrorism than Israel, the desire for control was expressed in increased gun sales here after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks, they note.

“Our research is conducted to try to stay one step ahead of current events,” Posavac said. “There haven’t been enough attacks in the United States for it to change consumer behavior on a wholesale level, but this could change very quickly.”