How religion influences pandemic behavior

Keisha Cutright started thinking a lot about how consumers decide to buy products when she worked in brand management for Procter & Gamble. Now she is one of the leading academics researching consumer behavior, in particular, how religion influences choices. Keisha’s research helps interpret how religious messaging may influence behavior during the pandemic.

Dean Bill Boulding interviews Keisha Cutright on Instagram

Keisha Cutright, Associate Professor of Marketing

“For about the past 14 years I've been looking at the relationship between religion and the choices that people make. So for example, I find that when people are thinking about God, they are less likely to feel like they need to rely on branded products. So they may be less likely to go for the Nike gym shoes as opposed to the generics. Because thinking about God, believing in God helps to fill some voids for self-expression for example. I have also started to look at fear appeals and have had work published there showing that when people think about God, they are also less afraid of many of the things happening in their environment. So as long as they don’t think that God is suggesting to them, or representatives of God are representing to them that they should fear something in their environment, they feel as if they are protected, they are supported and they don’t have to fear so much in the environment.”


“The political divide certainly has a lot to do with how, for example, white evangelicals are responding to messaging relative to Black or Hispanic Protestants. So we know there's that political divide. But I think even within that, what we are seeing is that folks who are thinking about God as being a protector and someone who will always provide support, they are generally saying that I don't have as much of a reason to fear this COVID thing, or many other things in the environment, because God will take care of me. I think that helps to explain a lot of the reaction that we see from the white evangelicals. They are saying that I trust fully in God. God is highly active in my life. I very much trust that he will take care of me. I think what we're seeing that dampened some of that effect of God and some of the other races and ethnicities is the fact that they are seeing, disproportionately, this affect of COVID in their communities and so it is very concrete and so it's hard to just say that God will protect me, God will take care of me, when you see your neighbors on the front lines and they're dying. I think that is starting to buffer some of the effect of the religion we might see otherwise among highly religious people. I would also say that in those communities, we see the religious leaders are actually starting to do more partnering with the government and with the messages, suggesting that taking precautions, taking this seriously, worrying a little bit about COVID is good for your neighbor. If you are a Christian, it is what Jesus would do. We would take care of our neighbor, we would think about that. We need to put on a mask and help protect the people around us. So I think in those communities we are seeing more of a marriage between the messaging and the religious community, such that it feels like these things are not counter to one another. Whereas in other communities, some of our messaging has started to make it feel that those things are butting heads. And they shouldn’t necessarily be doing that.”


“It makes sense in that those who are religious, we've seen in our data they may believe that they are at risk. But what they tell us in our data is that, ‘even if I am at risk, even if something bad happens, even if I get COVID, I will make it through this process and I will be okay.’ So at the end of the day, it may be a long road ahead, it may be hard but everything will work out. So they're saying, ‘because my health, eventually I'll be okay, let's not sacrifice everything else that's around us. Let’s not sacrifice the economy, because eventually I trust that I will be OK.’ Whereas the folks that are not religious, don't have that sense of comfort in saying that, ‘I will make it out alive. I will make it healthy. I will be OK because God will protect me.’ Because they don’t have God to rely on in their minds as a way to protect everyone from this.”


“I think it has a lot to do with the messenger. And so we have got to find the right messengers in our community from religious organization. So from our evangelical churches we have got to find someone who's seen this in the community, believes in the science and can speak to people, so that they understand that this is serious and that we want everyone to be healthy and take precautions. So I think we need the right messengers first. Secondly, the message itself, we have tried the route of going, ‘This is for your neighbors. Wear a mask to protect other people.’ But we are also combating a very individualistic society and so sometimes that message is hard to get across that you need to restrict your freedoms for someone else. And so I think we can go to some of our religious texts that do speak very strongly about loving your neighbor, protecting one another and try to use some of that language as background to help support this message that we do need to look out for one another. For most religions, God is love. Love for others. And I think we need to make that clear in our communication that this is not about restricting you. It's about loving our neighbors so that we can all be free of these restrictions at some point in the future.”


“I just think that looking around us, we see such a need for leadership - with the pandemic, with the social justice issues, and the energy there. I think the one thing that's clear is that we need leadership that is strong and empathetic and based in really good critical thinking and all of those are things that we focus on every day in business school and especially at Fuqua. And so I would love to see people come in (to business school), tool up, generate the type of leadership that we need and then be able to go back out into the world, in the private and the public sector, and give us all what we need right now.”


Quick Facts

Area: Marketing

Elective Course: Foundations of Organizational Behavior

Researches: Consumer Behavior, Brand Management

Street Cred:

Named one of the world’s 40 best business school professors under the age of 40 by Poets and Quants

Research explores the psychological drivers of consumer behavior, often addressing issues related to religion, personal control, culture and emotion

Published in The Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research and Marketing Science


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