There are many ways to express identity. If you walk down the street, you will see people wearing t-shirts with brands of products on them. They carry coffee mugs with the names of coffee companies. They carry bags that are branded with the logos of companies.
People also express their identity through religion. Religious beliefs can influence the actions people take. In addition, people may wear religious symbols on shirts or jewelry. They may put religious symbols on their cars.
In may ways, of course, religion and products seem fundamentally incompatible. Religion focuses on the sacred and the spiritual. Brands focus on the earthly and material.
A fascinating paper by Keisha Cutright, Tulin Erdem, Gavan Fitzsimons, and Ron Shachar in the December, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General examined whether commitment to brands interferes with commitment to religion.
In one preliminary study, participants were asked to choose between a pair of coffee mugs and a pair of t-shirts. For half the participants, the items had a brand name on them (Starbucks on the mug, Adidas on the t-shirts). For the other half, the products were unbranded. Later in the study, participants filled out scales to rate the strength of their commitment to religion and how often they attend religious services. Participants who made choices of branded products exhibited a lower commitment to religion and commitment to attend religious services than those who made choices of products without brand names.
A second study asked participants to think and write about one of two types of brands. Some participants were asked to write about a brand that really said something about their personality. Other participants were asked to write about a brand that they thought was functional but did not say anything about their personality. Later, they completed the scales of religious commitment. In this study, participants rated their religious commitment as lower if they wrote about brands that relate to their identity than if they wrote about brands that were purely functional.
In another study, participants selected a t-shirt for themselves, for another person, or for both themselves and another person. For some participants, the t-shirts had a company brand on them, but for other participants the t-shirts had no brand. Later, they rated their religious commitment, but also were given an opportunity to donate up to one dollar to either a group of faith-based charities or to a group of non faith-based charities. Compared to the other groups, participants who chose a branded t-shirt for themselves exhibited lower religious commitment and also donated less money to faith-based charities than those who chose non-branded t-shirts or chose for another person.
Control conditions in these experiments demonstrated that commitment to brands influenced religious commitment, but not commitment to other ways of expressing identity like commitment to sports teams, art, music, or engaging in social interactions.
What does all of this mean?
There is a tendency for people to try to maintain some consistency in their beliefs at any given moment (even though people may be quite inconsistent over time). So, when thinking about material goods, that will strengthen people’s thoughts about their material self, and weaken aspects of their self-concept that are inconsistent with that material self (including aspects of self-concept related to religion).
It is important to recognize that the effects observed in studies like this are short-term effects. That is, outside of the overt presence of brands, people’s beliefs about their religiosity will return to whatever their long-term state is.
However, these patterns of thought can become habitual. To the extent that we live in a world surrounded by brands that influence our self-concept, that can make it harder to build up and maintain a more spiritual or religious self-concept as well.