Religion is an important part of life for most individuals around the world. In fact, in 2012, Pew Forum reports that 80 percent of people worldwide and about 70 percent of Americans affiliate with a religion. For centuries, scholars and theologians have sought to understand the role that religion plays in shaping the behaviors of humans. Since 1992, a total of 180 journal articles mentioned religion in the top five consumer research journals. These scholarly works have focused on a wide array of topics, such as market segmentation, identity development, and the sacralization of consumption.
Because the topic of religion is experiencing a resurgence, but the research had yet to be systematized, I developed the first conceptual framework and research agenda for exploring the effects of religion on consumer behavior together with my co-authors Adam B. Cohen, Naomi Mandel, and David Glen Mick.
Instead of considering religion as religious affiliation (e.g., how do Catholics differ from Protestants) or level of religiosity (e.g., high versus low), our framework proposes that religion affects consumer psychology and behavior through four key dimensions—beliefs, rituals, values, and community. In the full article (“The effects of religion on consumer behavior: A conceptual framework and research agenda,” Journal of Consumer Psychology, April 2016), we offer a definition for religion and for each dimension, provide examples of existing measures of each dimension, integrate extant findings in the literature, and propose testable propositions for future research. Here, I will provide a brief overview of each dimension and consider how consumer scholars and marketers can use each dimension to better understand the underlying motivations behind certain consumer behaviors.
- Beliefs: Religious beliefs about sacredness differ between religions, sects, and denominations. For example, Catholics share beliefs about the afterlife, while Buddhists share beliefs about the impermanence of reality. These and other beliefs about the afterlife may provide a buffer against certain advertising strategies, such as fear appeals. Previously, consumer researchers have found that mortality salience (i.e., being reminded about the inevitability of death) induces death anxiety and causes individuals to buy more luxury products and status brands to cope with the fear of death and achieve symbolic immortality (Heine et al. 2002; Mandel & Heine 1999; Rindfleisch et al. 2009). However, religious beliefs about the afterlife may reduce death anxiety, thereby reducing the need for consumers to purchase luxury, branded goods when death is made salient. Therefore, certain fear appeals used in advertising and public service announcements may not be as effective at motivating the desired behaviors of individuals who score high (vs. low) on beliefs about the afterlife.
- Rituals: Rituals are symbolic, repeated behaviors that are performed in the same manner and order every time (Rook 1985), such as daily prayers or meditation, sacraments, holidays, and religious gatherings. Many religions have religious cleansing rituals to purify individuals from past transgressions or sins, such as confession for Catholics or wudu for Muslims. Previous research has found that when individuals recall a past moral transgression, they are more likely to engage in morally cleansing behaviors to make up for the past transgression (Jordan et al. 2011). We propose that it is likely that the religious practice of cleansing rituals (e.g., reconciliation, physical cleansing) will magnify the effect of making confessions about consumer transgressions on subsequent amends-making consumer behaviors (e.g., eating healthy, recycling, making a donation). Therefore, the practice of religious cleansing rituals may spillover into the consumer domain and assist individuals in achieving their consumer dieting or environmental goals.
- Values: Religious values provide normative guidance to individuals about what to consume, how much to consume, and when to consume it. Previous research has found a connection between religious values and reciprocity (Graham & Haidt 2010), self-control (McCullough & Willoughby 2009), giving (Peifer 2007), and volunteerism (Penner et al. 2005). Religious values delineate what consumption behaviors are allowed versus forbidden. For example, kosher laws in Judaism prohibit eating certain foods, sharia laws in Islam prohibit certain haram (prohibited) products (e.g., pork, alcohol, interest-earning banking products). Previous research has found that using self-control in a primary task (e.g., avoiding a desired outcome) causes individuals to seek out more enjoyable outcomes in a subsequent task (Muraven et al. 1998). We propose that strict religious consumption values will help individuals to exhibit self-control in the subsequent task because religious consumption values help individuals build self-regulatory strength and focus on chronic, long-term goals. Furthermore, adhering to religious values promotes consistent focus on required tasks (e.g., keeping kosher) and reduces the desirability of non-normative “want to” tasks (e.g., eating bacon). Additional research is needed to determine whether and when religious consumers are motivated more by the desire to adhere to normative religious values or by the fear of punishment for violating a religious value.
- Community: Finally, religions provide social support to members and help satisfy members’ need to belong, including the need for group identification and affiliation (Ysseldyk et al. 2010). Previous research has found that social exclusion can trigger behaviors aimed at restoring self-esteem (Leary & Baumeister 2000), such as consumption behaviors that will signal membership with a social group (Mead et al. 2011). Because religious communities help satisfy the fundamental need to belong, we propose that belonging to a community-based religious group will buffer the effects of external social exclusion on consumption outcomes. On the other hand, some threats, such as those made by a member of the in-group, may make subsequent restorative consumption even more important.
To stimulate research on this topic, we proposed two propositions for future research for each dimension of religion (see the table below from Mathras et al. 2016, p. 307). Our main goal is to challenge researchers and marketers to move away from merely considering religious affiliation or level of religiosity in their work, and to uncover the psychological mechanisms underpinning the relationship between religion and consumer behavior.