Ethical Shoppers Don’t Inspire Us—They Bug Us

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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 felt 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 well-known 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.


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