How God influences your grocery bill

Religion is designed to help us with our largest spiritual questions, but new research suggests that it also has a surprising impact on the far more earthly matter of our grocery shopping habits.

“Arguably, there is no other social force as influential as religion,” says Questrom marketing professor Didem Kurt, who notes that three-quarters of Americans are affiliated with a religion. “However, little is known about how religion affects one’s non-religious routines.”

To study this issue, Kurt teamed up with the University of Pittsburgh’s J. Jeffrey Inman and Harvard’s Francesca Gino to conduct a series of five studies and experiments linked to grocery shopping. They examined the numbers linked to grocery sales data and rates of religious adherence in thousands of counties across the country. They also set up separate lab experiments with hundreds of individuals to determine the influence of religious messages on impulse purchases.

Across the board, religion and religious messages were linked to lower spending. At the county level, the team found that higher levels of religiosity were associated with lower spending on groceries overall, including fewer unplanned purchases. More specifically, a 20 percent increase in the number of religious adherents in a given county was correlated to a 2 percent decrease in overall spending on groceries and a 1.6 percent decrease in spending on unplanned purchases.

At the individual level, a study that primed participants with a short video about the idea of God’s presence found that people were willing to spend less money than a control group on impulse purchases such as magazines and gum. The documented effect persisted whether or not an individual described themselves as religious.

What’s behind the difference? Kurt suspects that there are big ideas at work. “We attribute this result to the notion that thinking about God reminds people of commonly shared values — such as frugality — even if they don’t believe in God,” she says.

While Kurt notes that the study has obvious financial implications for those in religious households, there are takeaways for businesses, too. “Managers may want to consider proximity to houses of worship when choosing a retail location,” she says. “They need to be cognizant of the effect of religious cues and reminders on consumer spending.”

Read the complete paper on Science Direct.

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