Ethical Shoppers Don't Inspire Us — They Bug Us

 

A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 issue (pp.32–33) of the Harvard Business Review and at HBR.org. It is used here with permission.

 

The Research: In a series of studies, Rebecca Walker Reczek and Daniel Zane at Fisher College of Business and Julie Irwin at McCombs School of Business asked people what information they wanted when purchasing jeans. The subjects were told that because of time limits, they could get details on only two of the following attributes: price, style, wash, and child labor practices. The subjects who didn’t select labor practices were then asked their opinions of consumers who did. They rated the do-gooders low on positive traits (such as attractive and stylish) and high on negative traits (such as odd and boring).

The Challenge: Why would people look down their noses at ethical shoppers? Aren’t they role models for the rest of us? Professor Reczek, defend your research.

Reczek: We already knew from past research that most consumers will choose not to look at a company’s ethical practices when selecting products. Our goal was to study downstream consequences. When you decide not to seek out ethical information about a company but then see another person doing it, how does that make you feel? What are the social consequences of seeing someone do the ethical thing after you remained willfully ignorant? What we found is that people put down these “ethical others,” rating them as more boring, odder, and less attractive—all these really negative things.

HBR: Are humans so terrible that we think people who do good are weird?

Two things can happen when people see someone else doing something moral. They can either be inspired by that person or denigrate him or her. They may do the latter because of something psychologists call social comparison theory. It holds that we all have an overarching propensity to compare ourselves to others. If you see someone who is better than you on some dimension, like ethics, you feel threatened. It makes you feel bad about yourself. One way to overcome that is to put the other person down. Until our study, this hadn’t been explored in the context of ethical consumption. We predicted that this negative effect would occur, because how ethical people feel is a really important part of their identity.

Why were you so certain the subjects would act negatively? Why didn’t you think people would be inspired by ethical shoppers?

Most of the studies of what’s called moral elevation — when you see someone act ethically and want to emulate that behavior — have looked at exceptional acts, like starting a soup kitchen to help the homeless. We’re inspired by people like Mother Teresa, who do really amazing things to transform their communities. This often does lead to moral elevation. But most of us haven’t encountered a situation in which we’ve deliberately made a choice not to do that inspiring thing. Since you didn’t actively choose not to start a soup kitchen, you don’t experience a sense of threat the way you do if you observe someone buying jeans in a more ethical way than you did.

But maybe I really don’t care about the ethics of how they were made.

Our pretests show that people do think ethical attributes are important. So it’s not that they don’t care about them. If they know that something has been made under terrible labor conditions, they probably won’t buy it. It’s just that they would rather not find out. Julie Irwin did groundbreaking work on this idea. She found that people will use ethical information if it’s right in front of them, but they won’t seek it out. It’s a coping mechanism to avoid having to deal with the bad feelings that will arise if you discover horrible practices.

How do you know that we don’t simply dislike ethical people because they seem self-righteous or attention seeking?

We tested this in a second study. It had the same design as the first, but in one condition, before we told participants about this other ethical person and asked them to rate him, we gave them a chance to make a free donation to a charity by clicking on a website. The people who got to do that didn’t put down the other person, because they’d had a chance to shore up their ethical identity and didn’t experience the same sense of threat. That little act was enough to make them feel ethical.

Did how people feel about child labor itself change, too?

Yes. We measured how angry the subjects felt about the use of child labor in manufacturing. People who disparaged ethical shoppers felt less angry about it. They saw themselves saying, “Gosh, people who care are boring and weird” and inferred that they themselves must not care much about that issue. This is described by another well0known psychological theory, self-perception theory. It holds that one of the ways that we learn about ourselves is by observing our own actions. In other words, if I’m someone who exercises all the time, then I learn that I’m a healthy person.

Did any of the people who didn’t act ethically resolve to do better afterward?

In a similar study — using backpacks instead of jeans and replacing child labor with unsustainable manufacturing — we asked participants how interested they’d be in signing a pledge to be more sustainable. We found that subjects who put down ethical people were less likely to want to sign the pledge. That act of denigration undermined their commitment and their ethical values. Because they saw themselves calling people who took the time to research the sustainability information “odd,” “boring,” or “not fashionable,” they said to themselves, “I guess I don’t care much about sustainability,” and then they weren’t as interested in the pledge. 

In the study, subjects made this choice immediately after they put someone down. Is this a short-term effect that wears off? In a few minutes? A day?

That’s an open question. One of the big things that we don’t know from this research is how long the effect persists in the real world. That still needs to be studied.

What else should be studied?
We need to examine how people find out that someone else has behaved more ethically than they did. Our studies are agnostic about this. But it could make a difference if the more ethical person was bragging about it as opposed to posting something about the ethics of a product in an online review. That would be interesting—especially because other people’s purchases are a lot more transparent to us in 2016 than they were even 10 years ago. You see people talking on social media about the fact that they bought this particular brand of jeans because they knew the maker paid fair wages or because it was produced using sustainably sourced cotton.

What should companies take away from this?

Companies that are making goods in an ethical way need to advertise their practices prominently on the package in the store — where people are making decisions. Don’t force consumers to seek out that information. People will use the information if it’s there. They just don’t want to look for it.

Can I use this in my personal life if, for example, I want to persuade my meat-eating friends to become vegetarian?

You’ll be more successful if you present great recipes and say, “These are good for you and good for the planet,” than if you tell people they’re causing horrific harm to animals. No one wants to think about hurting animals. People will just tune that message out and think, “Those vegetarians are so weird.” I mean, you can talk about values, but don’t present yours as the morally superior ones.

 

To read more from Professor Julie Irwin about ethical shopping, see her op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman

 

Faculty in this Article

Julie Irwin

Professor of Marketing and Business, Government and Society McCombs School of Business

Julie Irwin joined the faculty in 1999. Her previous faculty appointments were at the Stern School of Business at New York University and the...

About The Author

TXE Staff

Staff, Texas Enterprise

The Texas Enterprise staff covers a broad swath of disciplines and interests. Writers, researchers, technicians and artists all contribute to the...

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