Exploring the Effect of Existential Threat Posed by Artificial Intelligence on Promoting Moral Consumer Behavior

Project: Research project

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This research proposes that while the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) may pose an existential threat to consumers, such a threat can promote moral consumer behavior.

AI refers to any machine (e.g., robots, algorithms) that aims to imitate human brains and perform tasks that demand intelligence (Wang, 2019). As it becomes more advanced and prevalent, AI has raised concerns that it might pose a severe and fundamental threat to the existence of humanity (thereafter, AI existential threat). Meanwhile, in the marketplace, consumers have increasingly more AI-facilitated encounters, ranging from humanoid robots in retail outlets to virtual medical advisors and even virtual performers. When consumer interaction with AIs becomes inevitable, how consumers react to AI existential threats becomes an important issue for marketing scholars and practitioners.

Extant literature recognizes that the advancement of AI poses an existential threat to consumers. Such a threat produces mixed effects: it can result in negative consequences, such as consumer psychological discomfort (Mende et al., 2019) and less favorable attitude toward AI (Kim et al., 2019; Schmitt, 2020) as well as positive consequences, such as reduced prejudice against other human outgroups (Jackson et al., 2020). It is unclear when and why AI existential threat brings positive or negative consequences.

In response to this issue, this research first examines the conceptualization of AI existential threats and proposes distinctiveness and superiority threats as two distinct types of AI existential threats. AI poses a distinctiveness threat when it becomes similar to humans and threatens humans’ distinctive identity, whereas it poses a superiority threat when it surpasses human capabilities in performing tasks that once only humans could achieve. We further argue that the experience of distinctiveness threat is more emotionally laden and results in negative reactions such as anxiety, discomfort, and prejudice against AIs. In contrast, the experience of superiority threat is more cognitive-based and motivates consumers to excel in other aspects that can reinstate their superiority over AIs. By making a distinction between distinctiveness and superiority threats, we contribute to the AI literature by resolving the mixed findings on the effects of AI existential threat and explaining why such a threat induces negative reactions and maladaptive behavior at some times (Kim et al. 2019; Mende et al. 2019) but boost performance and inclusive behavior at other times (Lysyakov & Viswanathan, 2023; Jackson et al., 2020; Shin et al., 2023).

Based on this categorization, this research further explores a novel consequence of AI existential threat: promoting moral behavior. We argue that when consumers experience a superiority threat that AI outperforms them in one aspect of ability, their self-esteem i
undermined because their privileged position as humans is being challenged. Therefore, they are motivated to reclaim their superiority by excelling AI in another aspect. Morality pursuit is a suitable domain to excel in because it is a fundamental quality of humankind that AIs are generally believed to lack (Bigman & Gray, 2018). Thus, acting morally (e.g., supporting donations) can restore the self-esteem dampened by the AI superiority threat. This research tests this mechanism and identifies the boundary conditions of this effect. AI threat has been found to promote unethical consumer behavior (Kim et al., 2022). This research advances existing understanding by showing that AI threat could also promote moral behavior and articulating when and why AI threat may encourage consumers to act more or less morally.

Finally, this research provides marketers insights into the promotion of AI-enabled offerings. When firms introduce AI-enabled offerings, they may also offer consumers morality enhancing opportunities (e.g., philanthropic campaigns) to facilitate consumer adoption.
StatusNot started
Effective start/end date1/01/2531/12/26


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