Loneliness, a negative feeling associated with a lack of personal connection with others and meaning in life, is a phenomenon experienced by over two-thirds of the U.S. population. The recent pandemic has only heightened this feeling for many, due to the restrictions of face-to-face interactions. However, prior research has focused more on the implications of loneliness rather than strategies that can be used to reduce it. One strategy is to increase a person’s perceived meaning of life through ritualistic consumption. Rituals provide a sense of meaning that comes from the repetition of a fixed set of steps.
Xuehua Wang, Yixia Sun, and Thomas Kramer explore the effect of ritual consumption on loneliness in their recently published article in the Journal of Marketing Research. The authors use multiple ostensibly unrelated studies to highlight how different ritualistic behaviors can decrease loneliness. They show that the meaning of life can be derived from the meaning of a product. However, if a consumer is able to find meaning in their life from other sources, then ritualistic behaviors associated with the product will not have an impact on their feelings of loneliness. Given that this is the first paper to examine the impact of consumption rituals on feelings of loneliness, there are many avenues for future research.
The findings of this research contribute to an under-researched area of loneliness reduction in marketing literature by illustrating a causal link between engaging in ritualistic behaviors, the individual’s perceived meaning in life, and their feelings of loneliness. The authors demonstrate that even rituals that may be considered unfamiliar or minimally important to consumers, such as the steps to prepare milk tea or to the “twist-lick-dunk” method of eating Oreos, can still provide meaningful ways of reducing loneliness. In addition, ritualistic behaviors can affect purchase intentions. Thus, marketers should encourage consumers to engage in or create their own rituals associated with their products.
Q & A with authors Xuehua Wang, Yixia Sun, and Thomas Kramer
Q: What was the motivation behind this research, and why are you passionate about pursuing factors that mitigate loneliness?
A: As human beings, even though we seek social connections, we inevitably encounter loneliness during our lifetime. The experience of loneliness is brief and transient for some of us; but for others, it is powerful and permanent in affecting our daily life. Especially in the context of a global epidemic, it is inevitable that people will be alone at home. Therefore, we are passionate about pursuing how to mitigate loneliness, particularly from a ritual perspective, which can easily be done at home.
Q: What are the main challenges for researchers interested in studying this topic?
A: Even though much extant work has examined loneliness, there are still many unanswered questions as to how to reduce its experience. Prior research indicates that consumers often visit stores and dislike self-service retailers that do not facilitate social contact (Forman and Sriram 1991). Shopping malls are considered places that reduce loneliness among older consumers (Kim, Kang, and Kim 2005). Consumers may also resort to social mechanisms, such as trying to engage in relationships (Weiss 1974). One challenge in studying loneliness was to isolate its experience and impact on downstream variables from other emotions that might co-occur, such as sadness. A second challenge was to tease apart the effect of ritualistic consumption and meaning in life from potential confounds, such as cognitive busyness or narrative transportation.
Q: Your experiments focused on the rituals associated with consumable products. Do you believe your results would still hold for rituals associated with durable products?
A: We don’t have that data, but it is interesting to further examine rituals associated with durable products. For example, collection behavior, whereby people collect products not for consumption, could be seen as a ritual, which may also enhance perceived meaning in life. Although we only relied on consumable products, we would guess that rituals involving all kinds of options, as long as they can be used to derive meaning, might reduce loneliness. It’s definitely an avenue worth exploring!
Q: Did you examine whether the consumers had preexisting rituals associated with the products in your experiments? If there were differences between their rituals and the ritual framework you posed, how would this impact their feelings of loneliness?
A: We did not examine whether the consumers had preexisting rituals associated with the products in our experiments. It is interesting for future research to examine whether the differences between their rituals and the ritual framework we posed would impact their feelings of loneliness. However, in one of our studies, we asked participants to eat an Oreo either using the traditional Oreo ritual or using the way they usually did. We then had to eliminate those who also used twist-lick-dunk rituals in the latter condition (thus, in effect following the ritual frame instructions). But based on our data and Norton and Gino’s (2014) research on rituals, the newly created rituals also work as long as consumers perceive them as rituals.
Q: Do you believe that individuals are likely to engage in more or less ritualistic behaviors if they had previously decreased their loneliness and found meaning in their lives?
A: Individuals engage in ritualistic behaviors for many reasons—think of all the social and cultural ones! Consumers who are not lonely or whose life is already meaningful might very well continue to engage in rituals for a variety of other reasons.
Q: Based on the findings of your paper, what other research questions can be pursued to reduce loneliness?
A: Future research may examine rituals associated with other product types, as you have asked, as well as different types of rituals such as self-designed rituals. It is also worth investigating the components of rituals and identifying what elements (e.g., the number of steps involved in the ritual; the length of each of the steps) actually lead to meaning in life and thus reduce loneliness. And, of course, there are likely to be other ways in which marketing activities might reduce loneliness; for example, might marketers increase group membership salience in their ads and thereby lower loneliness by increasing perceived social connections?
Q: What are the key takeaways of this research study for different stakeholders (e.g., academics, marketing, organizations, government agencies)?
A: For marketers, it is beneficial to communicate ritualistic behavior involving their brands—either suggesting the ritual themselves or urging consumers to develop their own. For public policy makers, governmental actors could stimulate rituals that do not include particular product options to add much needed meaning to people’s lives, especially during the pandemic.
Q: How can managers apply the findings of your studies into practice?
A: The results of Study 1 show that rituals that have meaning for consumers and often occur as part of a special event (e.g., holidays, important sporting events) and may include loved ones. Thus, to ensure that rituals involving their brands are meaningful to consumers, marketers should consider including these characteristics when suggesting ritualistic steps. Given that we found that the most important quality that transforms common behaviors into rituals was the presence of rigid, formal, and repetitive steps, marketer-provided rituals should reflect these characteristics.
Read the full article:
Wang, Xuehua, Yixia Sun, and Thomas Kramer (2021), “Ritualistic Consumption Decreases Loneliness by Increasing Meaning,” Journal of Marketing Research, 58 (2), 282–98.