The Protestant Work Ethic Effect on Consumer Choice


The Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) is a belief system which includes the idea that hard work will breed success. According to the sociologist Max Weber, who introduced the idea, this belief system explains the development of Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Nowadays it is regarded as a secular belief which exists in most cultures, with variations across individuals. In psychological terms, PWE can become a core part of a person’s identity – which makes it surprising that to date, there has been little research about its impact on consumer behaviour.

Yimin Cheng, Anirban Mukhopadhyay and Rom Y Schrift seek to fill the gap with research that shows how one’s attitude to work and effort can affect consumer decisions. They offer the example of bad-tasting cough syrup, which people often regard as more effective than tastier cough syrup even though there is no objective reason to believe this.

“Our proposal is that people who believe strongly in PWE are more likely than those low in PWE to assume that costlier means lead to better outcomes even in work-unrelated contexts, such as medicine taste and efficacy and service price and quality,” they said.

They find support for this in a series of studies involving nearly 2,000 participants, who were asked to make choices that required varying kinds of effort and who, in some of the studies, were primed to have high or low PWE. They found that people with high PWE did indeed believe bad taste in medicine inferred efficacy, and that they were more likely to believe a more expensive courier service would be more likely to deliver a parcel on time. When given a choice between a more difficult and an easier pre-task before a main task, they were more likely to select the difficult one if it was labelled as “training” for the main task. When given a choice of sweet- or bitter-tasting herbal jelly, they were more likely to choose the bitter-tasting one if provided with no other distinguishing information. High PWE even kicked in when given the option to buy one of two bottles of wine as a gift, which were similar in all respects except one could be bought nearby and the other required a longer journey. Those with high PWE had a greater tendency to choose the longer journey.

“The PWE is a core value predicated on the work-specific belief that hard work leads to success. As a result, people who subscribe strongly to it tend to over-generalise and align other, work-unrelated cognitions to be consistent with it,” the authors said.

This has implications for marketers. Price cutting, for example, may not be persuasive for people with high PWE who may infer lower quality.

“One may ask when marketers should use a low-price strategy and when not,” they said. “Our finding suggests this may depend on the extent to with the target segment subscribes to PWE. If they are high in PWE, marketers should be cautious in using low-price strategies and perhaps even use higher prices to signal higher quality. But if the target segment is low in PWE, it is relatively safe to use a low-price strategy because they are less likely to use a cost-benefit heuristic.”

How does one identify people with high PWE? The authors point to previous research that found such people are more likely to work while commuting, work on weekends and be punctual, for example.

“Modern IT provides marketers many possible ways to track behaviours. Do people subscribe to business journals or entertainment magazines? How frequently do they use productivity apps? Do they read news or play games on smartphones to kill time?” they said.

A final suggestion was directed at firms that operate internationally, who could tailor their PWE-related marketing based on the level of development of their target country, because, as they found, people in economically-developing countries tend to have higher levels of PWE. “Consumers from these countries may be more receptive to appeals that emphasise cost-benefit relationships,” they added.


Associate Provost (Teaching & Learning), Provost Office, Lifestyle International Professor of Business, Chair Professor