Disgusted and Afraid: Consumer Choice Under the Threat of Contagious Disease

Disgusted and Afraid: Consumer Choice Under the Threat of Contagious Disease

By
Chelsea Gioni, Gregory S. Carpenter, Hayagreeva Rao
Journal of Consumer Research. May
2020

Consumers regularly encounter cues of contagious disease in daily life — a commuter sneezes on the train, a colleague blows their nose in a meeting, or they read recent headlines about the dangerous spread of a disease. Research has overwhelmingly argued that the dominant response to these cues is disgust — an emotion that leads to a desire to reject and avoid potential contamination. We argue, however, that contagious disease cues can also elicit fear.

Across four experiments and two large empirical data analyses of the presence of contagious disease on actual consumption behavior, we find that cues of contagious disease increase both fear and disgust, and these emotions together form a unique behavioral tendency with respect to consumer behavior. Relative to either emotion alone, disgust and fear increase preference for more familiar products asymmetrically over less familiar ones. These results contribute theoretically to research on complex emotional states and the behavioral tendencies of emotions, document a systematic and consequential impact of contagious disease cues on real consumption behavior, and have significant practical implications for marketers.