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Christians who are spiritual or religious are less likely to purchase self-improvement products when they are thinking about God, research finds.

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, says Duke University Fuqua School of Business marketing professor Keisha Cutright, a coauthor of the study, which finds the results to be true across various religions and denominations of Christianity.

Self improvement is a $10 billion industry, and includes things like sheets that promise better sleep and teas that claim to sharpen thinking. The new findings appear in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“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 says. “So it’s not as important to them to go buy all these products in the marketplace that marketers say will make them better.”

The researchers found 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.

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In one analysis, the researchers studied consumer behavior in nearly 400 United States 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.

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 find.

The research highlights one specific exception among consumers who are religious or spiritual, Cutright says. 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 says. “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.”

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 says.

The research can also guide marketers as they place promotions for self-improvement products, she says.

“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 says.

“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.”

Source: Duke University