In Carrie Underwood’s 2005 Platinum hit song “Jesus, Take the Wheel”, the song’s protagonist loses control of her car on an icy road and in response asks for divine intervention. This actually reflects a common psychological process called “compensatory control”, whereby people turn to external sources of control and order in their life (such as God), when faced with randomness. In other words, people have a deep desire to see the world as orderly, controlled, and as making sense; if I can’t be in control of outcomes in my own life, then something else being in control is the next best thing.
The song “Jesus, Take the Wheel” also intuited that this psychological process can play out in the context of products and consumption. This is the topic of research that we (Steven Shepherd, Oklahoma State University; Aaron C. Kay, Duke University) recently published in the Journal of Marketing Management.
In our studies, we explored the appeal of religious and spiritual products; that is, products that are seen as having religious or spiritual qualities, or rituals and behaviors that imbue a product with religious or spiritual significance. This might include crosses to hang from one’s rearview mirror, or the practice (found across cultures) of blessing one’s vehicle, whether it be a car, bicycle, or motorbike. It also includes increasingly popular health products such as essential oils, Himalayan salt lamps, acupuncture, reiki, and others that are often described as not working by purely material means, but that their effectiveness taps into the spiritual or some unknown or unseen energy.
Using experimental designs, and testing our hypotheses across over 1700 participants, we first found that, naturally, those who are more religious and spiritual are drawn to religious and spiritual products, and the idea of imbuing products with religious significance (e.g., having a car blessed). However, this is particularly the case when concerns about lack of control and randomness where relevant and on people’s minds. For example, Indian participants were more likely to want to have a vehicle blessed when they imagined buying a new vehicle that is prone to breaking down without warning, as opposed to if it was uncomfortable. American Christian participants showed a very similar effect; they showed more interest in religious symbols to attach to their car when they were asked to write about all of the things that are beyond their control while driving (e.g., pedestrians, other drivers, weather), compared to those participants who were simply asked to write about the day to day use of their car.
We wanted to dive deeper into exactly what is appealing about religious and spiritual products; specifically, the qualities of these products that might help manage concerns about randomness and a lack of control.
We first hypothesized that more spiritual people will see spiritual products (as opposed to non-spiritual products) as having non-material efficacy. When asked how a car works, people are likely to explain the mechanics of the engine, the chemical processes that take place, and so on. When asked how conventional medicine works, people may refer to the chemical composition of the drug, how it attacks bacteria, or works with neurotransmitters in the brain.
Conversely, spiritual products may be seen as tapping into some other kind of efficacy that is not bound to the material world and taps into some kind of mysterious, unseen, unmeasurable efficacy. This can often be seen in reference to the body’s or the universe’s “energy”.
Second, we hypothesized that the efficacy of spiritual products will be seen as unfalsifiable. While scientists place high value on falsifiability – the ability to test and show a hypothesis or theory to be wrong – many people actually find unfalsifiability to be attractive when it comes to political, religious, and spiritual beliefs, because it means that their beliefs are relatively immune from criticism or being disproven (Friesen, Kay, & Campbell, 2015).
The results of two studies showed that indeed spiritual products were seen as having these benefits. In both studies, we measured the spirituality of the participants, and presented them with one of two products. Half of the participants read about a brand of essential oil. We chose essential oil because the product is commonly referred to in spiritual terms. The other half read the exact same description, except the oil was described as a synthetic version of oil derived from plants, but is chemically identical.
Our results showed that more spiritual participants thought the essential oil had more non-material efficacy (i.e., mystical and sacred properties, taps into an unknown energy) than the chemically identical synthetic version. Participants also saw the essential oil as more unfalsifiable than the non-spiritual oil.
When told that a study recently showed that this essential oil had no effect on treating health issues compared to a placebo, participants who were more spiritual said that this study would not shake their faith or confidence in the product, and that the effectiveness of this product cannot be accurately tested by science. Moreover, spiritual participants reported in increased interest in the spiritual product and a higher willingness to pay for the product over the non-spiritual product. The properties of non-material efficacy and unfalsifiability explained this increased desire for the spiritual product. Less spiritual participants did not show this effect.
Read the original research article: Shepherd, S. & Kay, A.C. (2018). ‘Jesus, take the wheel’: the appeal of spiritual products in satiating concerns about randomness. Journal of Marketing Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2018.1556225
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