Whether it is marketing a tea to sharpen thinking, or sheets that promote sounder sleep, the $10 billion self-help industry has always attracted consumers with products that promise to improve aspects of their bodies and their lives.
However, certain consumers may be less likely to take these items home. Research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests people who are spiritual or religious are less likely to purchase such self-improvement products when they are thinking about God.
More specifically, when people who believe in God or a higher power are primed to think about the unconditional love and acceptance God offers, their intent to purchase self-improvement products decreases, said Fuqua marketing professor Keisha Cutright, a co-author of the research, which found the results to be true across various religions and denominations of Christianity.
“Ultimately what we found is that when people are thinking about God, they have a sense that they are loved for exactly who they are,” Cutright said. “So it’s not as important to them to go buy all these products in the marketplace that marketers say will make them better.”
Measuring ‘god salience’
The researchers, which also included Lauren Grewal and Fuqua Ph.D. graduate Eugenia C. Wu, discovered these trends in consumer behavior through a number of studies. These studies included original experiments and analyses of market research and census data to detect how big a role God played in people’s lives, or to measure “god salience” in people’s daily lives.
In one analysis, the researchers studied consumer behavior in nearly 400 U.S. counties and how it correlated with the proportion of religious congregations for every 1,000 residents, another measure of god salience. They found that grocery store shoppers in counties with a higher density of religious congregations spent less money on products marketed to improve their health, such as low-fat options for milk, yogurt, peanut butter and salty snacks. This occurred even after the researchers controlled for factors such as age, gender, average body mass index (BMI) and other variables.
Priming participants to think about God
The researchers also measured participants’ interest in self-improvement products through various experiments. For one study, participants were divided into two groups for a writing exercise. People in one group were prompted to write about their day, while remaining participants were asked to write about the impact of God on their lives. Participants who wrote about God showed less interest in purchasing self-improvement products in subsequent activities, the researchers found.
The research highlights one specific exception among consumers who are religious or spiritual, Cutright said. In order to lower a person’s interest in self-improvement products, the concept of God had to create a feeling of unconditional love. Interest in self-improvement products did not subside for people whose beliefs centered around a higher power or God that was perceived as punitive.
“What really matters is how people think about God,” Cutright said. “When people think about God as a loving, forgiving entity, that’s when they are not as interested in self-improvement products. But when we come across people who think about God as an authoritarian or punishing figure, this effect no longer exists, and they show more interest in self-improvement products.”
Messages for consumers, marketers
The experiments offer a new way for people to understand influences on their own consumption.
“It’s important to be cognizant of how different thoughts affect your behavior, and to be more aware of why you are making decisions– what you are ultimately trying to achieve,” Cutright said.
The research can also guide marketers as they place promotions for self-improvement products, she said.
“Marketers may want to shy away from contexts where there will be a lot of religious programming, or geographically, in places that are highly religious,” Cutright said. “Another aspect we explored is how participants would respond to the idea that God wants to encourage their improvement, in terms of their spiritual growth and development. We found that by introducing this idea, the effect of lowering their interest in these products went away. So there may be ways to tap into people’s desires for spiritual improvement – perhaps by having an endorser for the products or spokesperson who has strong ties to a religious community.”