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.
Conspicuous 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.