Spirituality may reduce desire to conspicuously consume

Connor Wood


When you think of the word “spirituality,” what comes to mind? Luxury yachts, designer footwear, and shopping vacations in Europe, right? Nope – we didn’t think so. For most people, spirituality and religiousness seem to be deeply counterposed to materialistic desires and concerns. The Buddha renounced a life of royal luxury to seek enlightenment, for example, while Jesus urged his followers to give away all they owned. Now, research has found that merely asking people to think about spiritual experiences makes them less materialistic, regardless of their sense of meaning in life, levels of self-control, or even mood.

Read MoreConspicuous consumption is a bit like how late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described pornography – you know it when you see it. From hot-rod cars to McMansions in the suburbs, designer suits to huge home entertainment systems, flashy material goods let people show off their wealth, connections, and social status. But while American culture may often seem like a veritable ground zero of enthusiastic conspicuous consumption, Americans are also some of the most religious people on earth. The occasional Prosperity Gospel preacher notwithstanding, most Judeo-Christian religious teachings argue that spirituality is opposed to, or at least incompatible with, extreme materialism. But are spiritual people actually less materialistic than their secular peers?

A team of researchers led by Tyler F. Stillman at Southern Utah University investigated this question in a series of two studies published recently in the Journal of Economic Psychology. Inspired partly by a body of research suggesting that people with strong religious beliefs tend to have both lower incomes and lower levels of debt, Stillman and his colleagues postulated that spiritual beliefs might reduce the desire for conspicuous consumption – which is, of course, a major cause of credit-card debt. They further hypothesized that spirituality would have this effect by reducing people’s levels of materialism, or desire for material goods.

Alert readers may think this logic seems tautological – spirituality reduces the drive to purchase material goods by reducing the desire for material goods! – but there’s actually a vital distinction here. The other possibility Stillman and the other researchers considered for their first study was that spirituality might increase self-control, which in turn would temper subjects’ urges to spend lots of money on fancy stuff. But, crucially, self-control would notreduce the desire for the fancy stuff. Essentially, then, the first study investigated whether spirituality would reduce spending because it enhanced subjects’ self-control – thus making it easier to overcome their innate materialistic desires – or because it actually eliminated or weakened those desires outright.

After recruiting nearly 150 undergraduates and having them answer questions about their levels of personal spirituality, such as “I experience a connection to all life” and “I feel deep inner peace or harmony,” the researchers had the volunteers fill out a hypothetical report detailing how much they’d be willing to spend for various consumer goods. These items included watches, cell phones, and dinners out, and the the differences between the high and low prices varied by as much as a factor of ten. Materialism and self-control were also measured using survey instruments.

As the team expected, subjects who reported higher levels of spirituality also showed less willingness to spend lavishly on watches and other goods. In other words, spiritual participants – the ones who answered that they did indeed feel “deep inner peace or harmony” – were simply more frugal than their peers. But, crucially, self-control had little effect on the connection between spirituality and consumerism. Instead, highly spiritual respondents showed reduced materialist traits, measured by such survey items as “I wish I had a nicer car” or “I wish I made more money.” In turn, these lower-than-average levels of materialism translated into less willingness to spend big for flashy consumer items. In sum, spirituality appeared not to simply give people the self-control they needed to overcome their materialistic desires, but to actually mitigate those desires themselves.

Of course, the first study was correlational. To increase the predictive power of their findings, Stillman and colleagues designed a second study. More than 200 participants were divided into two groups. The first group was asked to describe the single most spiritual event of their lives, while the second group was merely asked to describe in detail a particularly pleasant experience they’d had. Both groups were tested for levels of materialism, conspicuous consumption, and mood. For this second study, all participants also answered questions measuring their levels of meaning in life and their sense that a higher power was watching over them.

As in study 1, spirituality was significantly associated with reduced conspicuous consumption – volunteers who had been asked to remember a spiritual experience were less willing to spend big on hypothetical luxury goods than volunteers who’d simply recalled an enjoyable experience. (Volunteers also reported how spiritual they felt during the experiment; as expected, the participants who had described a spiritual experience reported more spiritual feelings.)

Again, it was reduced materialism that seemed to do the heavy lifting. Volunteers in the spiritual condition didn’t report feeling any more meaning in their lives than the controls. And, interestingly enough, they also didn’t sense a higher power in their lives any more clearly than the participants in the control condition. Instead, the same factors seemed to be in play as in study 1 – spirituality reduced the allure of material goods, which in turn made respondents less interested in spending big for those goods.

Spirituality or religion and materialism have been described as being opposed in countless texts, stories, and traditions across many cultures. Modern-day research has often corroborated this cultural wisdom – finding, for example, that the drive to build up the ego (by showing off one’s wealth, for example) is functionally opposed to the desire to transcend one’s own, limited self. This research by Stillman and his colleagues bolsters these assumptions by showing that people who claim to be more spiritual, or who are primed to enter more spiritual mental states, appear to experience less desire for material goods – and thus less interest in conspicuous economic consumption.

Still, these studies aren’t perfect. First, it’s always difficult to show that people’s behavior in laboratory conditions translates into real life. For example, the respondents in these studies weren’t actually given money and asked to buy expensive things. So, while tantalizing, these results don’t show how spiritual people actually behave – it just shows how they say they would behave. Secondly, the age-old quandary of psychology studies is that not everyone in the world is a psychology undergraduate. In fact, a vanishingly small percentage of the earth’s population fits that description. So studies that use undergraduates as research subjects may not be perfectly applicable to the diverse, unruly, often surprising population beyond academia’s walls. Finally, the effect sizes were small – spirituality may reduce materialism, but other, secular variables may play comparable, or even larger, roles.

Nevertheless, the findings of Stillman and his colleagues make theoretical sense and fit with other results in the literature (not to mention hoary religious axioms). It’s good to be skeptical of results like these, but not rigidly so. Spirituality – whatever that often-fuzzy concept might actually refer to – could genuinely be one path out of the sticky, emotionally barren trap of materialism. In that sense, it could be very good for the psyche, but not so hot for Madison Avenue.


  • fantumofthewinds

    I winder .. I don’t think it has any thing to do with spiritual , when we are young we tend to build or foundation , we need cars , we need a house, we need all the things that fill it , after which our focus changes from foundation to, that of establishing a family , after which again our focus changes and we find we have had it all , thus we need nothing else , so of course materials would be less important. but having or not having does not make me less spiritual .. thanks

  • A.C.


    Thank you for writing this article! I find it interesting, but I’m skeptical of the results. The reasons being that I’m wondering if they accounted for how much money the undergraduates had. What if rating higher on “I wish I had more money” was because, interestingly enough, poorer students tended to be less spiritual, but more financially secure ones tended to be more spiritual? I have nothing to back up my idea of finances correlating with spirituality, other than anecdotes and personal observations in life (which aren’t incredibly scientific).

    Similarly, someone can wish for a “nicer” car without it meaning a Ferrari. My partner has a car that’s falling apart, on its last legs, and I’m sure he’d rate higher on wanting a “nicer” car–because that means he could drive more than 5 miles away from home without worrying about the car breaking down. At this moment, he can’t afford to buy a new car. He’s lucky that he has some amount of privilege in that he has friends and family that can loan money to him to help pay rent this month, but if he didn’t–I don’t want to imagine where he’d be.

    Since I can’t afford to pay 30 dollars to read the study (and I assume you have access to it, since you wrote the article), was there anything in the study to account for students’ financial situations? I’m worried that a little bit of blinding by privilege was at play for those conducted the study, because for them items like “more money” and “nicer car” might mean “luxury,” while for poorer undergrads those two things mean “make it easier to survive” and “functional.”

  • Kenneth Munkres

    This article is nonsense. Spirituality and religiousnes are not necessarily correlated. Neither state of being can be quantitated.

  • Kristen inDallas

    cool post… I think his means we need to start implementing some spiritual welfare programs. (free daycare while you go to church, etc) That way maybe as a nation we can get past thinking that we’re poor if we don’t have an iphone.

  • Monimonika

    I was about to make a snark about the offering of free daycare for going to Prosperity Gospel (read: scam-you-out-of-your-money) churches instead of working to provide for the kid, but then I realized something.

    Even if we accept that spirituality/religiousness reduces the desire to have/spend on “nicer” things, that doesn’t necessarily translate to greater financial responsibility. People who are not as attached to worldly goods could also be just as unattached to money and thus willing to give away their money to their church/other people. In the extreme, there are people who throw away or donate all of their money because they think they don’t need any of that “extra stuff”, and that somehow their faith will pull them through whatever happens later on.

  • connorwood

    Hi A.C., thanks for your thoughtful comment. One reason I doubt that baseline economic status has much to do with the connection between spirituality and conspicuous consumption is that, in Study 2, spirituality was actually elicited through a priming exercise. So the students weren’t tested for how spiritual they were in general, but instead were primed to “feel” more spiritual right there in the lab. And even participants who were primed to temporarily feel more spiritual reported less desire to spend on material goods. This result suggests pretty strongly that it’s how “spiritual” you feel that affects your materialistic desires, rather than simply your level of overall economic comfort.