Believing in The Unbelievable: The Hidden Utility of Superstitious Belief in Consumer Behaviour

Yuanyuan, Cui
Kim, Jungkeun
Chan, Ricky Y. K.
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

Have you ever said “bless you” when someone around you sneezes – just in case the devil might steal their soul? Have you ever shied away from flying on a Friday, the 13th, or ever knocked on a piece of wood just to ward off bad luck? If your answered “yes” to any of the questions, you are at least somewhat superstitious. Superstitious beliefs, defined as an irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance that is not logically related to a course if events influence the outcome. Although superstitious beliefs are ubiquitous in our lives, the investigation of superstitious beliefs in the marketing literature remains a largely nascent scholarly realm. Among few exceptions, researchers predominantly focus on the impact of superstition on product evaluation and purchasing, however, unfortunately overlooked its implications on normative consumer behaviours.

Responding to the call for more scholarships aiming at “addressing the general frustration with society and market limitations,” there is a considerable need to investigate normative behaviours, defined as actions that align with social norms, expectations, values, and consumer welfare. To grasp a more comprehensive understanding of the effects of salient superstitious beliefs, this thesis therefore opts for consumer sustainability and impulsivity, thereby tapping into consumers’ normative behaviour algin with social ethics and personal well-being respectively.

Through a series of experiments (conducted through an online crowdsourcing panel [Cloud Research]), complemented by online survey, meta-analysis and field experiments, this thesis aims to exploring the effects of salient superstitious beliefs. Specifically, the first investigation (Chapter 5) featured three experimental studies, with a single-paper meta-analysis cementing the robustness of the findings. The resulting findings revealed that activating superstitious beliefs led to significantly consumers’ greater preference for sustainable products. Furthermore, mediation analyses showcased that this effect occurred because when such beliefs were made more salient, consumers were more inclined to experience a stronger tendency of karmic reward seeking. Moreover, the subsequent investigation exploring the effect of superstitious beliefs on consumer impulsivity (Chapter 7). Across five studies, the findings demonstrated that superstitious beliefs significantly decreased consumer impulsivity. Through an experiment conducted online, one with enhanced incentive compatibility, and one conducted in the field setting, this research showed that the effect on impulsivity was mediated by consumers’ long-term (vs. short-term) orientation induced by superstitious beliefs, which motivates consumers to prioritise future long-term gains over immediate gratifications.

Combined, the resultant findings of this thesis address the research questions, and demonstrate the previously underexamined potential of superstitious beliefs. By investigating the causal effect of superstitious beliefs and the underlying mechanisms, this research sheds light on the nuances of such beliefs and its implications for consumer behaviour, including consumer sustainability and impulsivity. To this end, this thesis adds to the emerging research paradigm of transformative consumer research (TCR) aiming at promoting more mindful and responsible consumer behaviours. Practically, the findings compel businesses, consumers, and policy makers such that more effective intervention techniques can be deployed to promote more sustainable consumer behaviours and curb consumer impulsivity.

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