April 2, 2004 -- Media images of bronzed bathing beauties may drive women to tanning beds and beaches, despite the well-known skin cancer risks, new research shows.
But researchers also say that women who are reminded of their own mortality may be less likely to expose themselves to the dangerous ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV radiation is the most common cause of skincancer.
Two studies on the psychology of tanning and the concept of how we deal with thoughts of mortality show that women's tanning behavior may be strongly influenced by media images and also by fears of death.
Women Tan at Their Own Risk
In the first study, researchers asked 45 women to write about death or a control topic of dental pain and then indicate their preference among a variety of sunscreens with varying levels of sun protection factor (SPF). The women were asked about their sunscreen preference either immediately after writing or after completing a distracting task.
Researchers found that when women were consciously thinking about death, they were much more likely to report a preference for sunscreens with a higher SPF. This helped the women minimize the conscious threat of death.
When they were distracted and thoughts were driven away from the concept of death, they were more interested in the lower SPF sunscreens. This behavior served to boost self-esteem and is a defense mechanism used to protect against unconscious death concerns.
In the second study, researchers questioned women who said tanning was somewhat important to their self-esteem. They wrote about death or feelings of uncertainty. They were then shown either an advertisement for a store offering tanning products and services, which featured either a picture of an attractive and tanned woman standing on a beach or a picture of a beach ball.
The women were then asked how interested they would be in shopping in the store or using tanning services such as tanning beds at the store.
Researchers found that women who were shown the image of the tanned woman were more likely to be interested in purchasing tanning products and services than the women shown the beach ball.
Both studies are scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Researchers say the findings show women's feelings about tanning are closely linked to their self-esteem and how tanning is portrayed in the media. They write that the study demonstrates how reactions to unconscious death concerns can pose a threat to one's health.
"There is a distinct difference in a person's behavior when their concern about mortality is in or outside their conscious attention and when such factors as societal standards and self-esteem are involved," says researcher Jamie Arndt, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Missouri at Columbia, in a news release.
"When society decides not to celebrate the beauty of tanned skin, but instead focus on healthier values such as protecting oneself from the harmful rays of the sun, then we can help individuals defend themselves more productively against the conscious and unconscious concerns about death," says Arndt.