Deakin Business School, part of Deakin University, undertook seven related experiments with some 1,500 participants in conjunction with Singapore University of Social Sciences.
Conducted in the US, the study found that those people who had a Christian upbringing had those beliefs activated by popular Christmas decorations — leading them to be more forgiving of instances of poor or less than desirable customer service.
The findings were published in the Journal of Service Research.
They led Dr Joshua Newton of Deakin Business School to conclude that “symbols associated with seasonal religious festivals such as Christmas can serve more than just a decorative function”.
“Some Christmas symbols such as nativity scenes, stars and angels draw on Christian imagery, while others such as pine trees and holly have more pagan or secular origins. But by virtue of their strong connection to Christmas, they’ve all become infused with a shared set of meanings for those with a Christian upbringing,” he said.
“In the presence of such symbols, individuals soften their evaluations of a personally experienced service failure encounter. We believe this exposure to Christmas symbols may activate beliefs associated with Christianity, influencing customers’ readiness to forgive instances of poor customer service.”
Dr Newton suggested that these findings could substantially change modern perceptions of how religion influences transactional behaviour.
“Our findings suggest that religiously infused beliefs can be deliberately activated through the strategic use and placement of religious festival symbols,” he said.
“While Christmas symbols don’t turn a neutral service experience into a positive one, they have been shown to lessen the impact of negative customer service interactions.”
There is a catch, however.
Service failures may be more easily forgiven, but this same activation of religious ideals also tends to enhance awareness of social injustice.
“Witnessing a service failure directed towards a vulnerable person actually increases service dissatisfaction,” Dr Newton said.
“For example, if they saw a staff member being rude to an elderly customer, those same forgiving people were more likely to warn others about the business or switch to alternative service providers.
“This goes to show that symbols associated with religious festivals such as Christmas can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they soften how we evaluate bad service that we personally receive. On the other, they harden our evaluations of bad service that we see being directed towards vulnerable members of the community.”
Separate data this week revealed the most popular gifts being purchased in 2018.