Francisco Osorio — People feel threatened when they see others making ethical consumer choices.
An amusing new study delves into the social consequences of one person witnessing another person doing the ‘ethical thing’ — and why it makes them uncomfortable.
Do you consider yourself to be an ethical consumer? If so, then be careful about the way in which you promote those ethics to friends and families. An intriguing new study has found that ethical consumerism actually irritates many people and backfires by pushing them away from making ethical choices.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at Fisher School of Business and McCombs School of Business, asked subjects about what information they look for when buying a new pair of jeans. The subjects were told they could only get details on two of the following categories: price, style, denim wash, and child labor practices.
Those who did not select child labor as one of their conditions were then asked to rate their opinion of those who did. Their conclusion: “They rated the do-gooders low on positive traits (such as attractive and stylish) and high on negative traits (such as odd and boring).”
What does this say about present-day shoppers?
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, one of the lead researchers, Professor Rebecca Walker Reczek, points out that these results are not surprising. Earlier research has already shown that most consumers do not consider a company’s ethical practices when selecting a product. This study digs deeper, however, by questioning the social consequences of one person witnessing another person doing the ethical thing.
When a person sees someone else doing something morally correct, there are two possible outcomes. Either that person becomes inspired to act similarly, or they feel the need to denigrate the other person for being so proper. Psychologists call this “social comparison theory,” where humans have an innate need to compare themselves to each other.
The Guardian explains: “The underlying problem goes way beyond shopping. Faced with any ethical outrage, there are two ways to make your negative feelings go away. One is to address the outrage; the other is to try not to think about it – as with the people who chose not to learn about child labour. You can deal with the horrors of factory farming by becoming vegetarian – or by not hanging out with vegetarians who bang on about factory farms.”
People do not feel threatened by exceptional acts of ethical behavior because they feel exempt from such impossibly high standards, i.e. Mother Teresa helping the poorest of the poor in India and Nelson Mandela doing jail time for leading South Africa out of apartheid. Stories of ethical leaders such as these do result in ‘moral elevation’ – when you see those actions and want to emulate them.
Do shoppers really not care?
They do care, Reczek says, but they don’t want to have to dig for information. If labor practices are placed in clear view in a store, then shoppers will usually try to make the ethical choice. When information requires more in-depth research and questioning, however, shoppers prefer to remain ignorant.
Interestingly, a second study by the same researchers found that when people have the opportunity to make a free donation to a charity by clicking on a website before being asked to rate the other person making an ethical shopping decision, they were ultimately less critical and negative:
“The people who got to do [the free donation] 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.”
It’s all rather depressing, but keep in mind that people feel the need to denigrate ethical shoppers precisely because they know these things matter. Just make sure you don’t tell others that their choices are wrong and evil because that’s the fastest way to ensure they’ll block it out and, as Oliver Burkeman poetically puts it, “conveniently convince themselves you’re a freak.”