A study co-authored by colleagues at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business found shoppers tend to be “willfully ignorant” of whether their favorite products were made ethically, even putting down other people who shop more ethically than themselves.
The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, revealed people who are threatened by feeling unethical in their shopping choices denigrate others who exhibit more ethical consumer behavior.
Co-author Julie Irwin, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, found in 2005 that people chose not to learn if products they liked were produced ethically, if that information was not easily accessible.
Recently, with the rise in popularity of social media, it occurred to the researchers that now while some people choose to be “willfully ignorant,” they could see online when others choose ethical consumerism, said co-author Rebecca Walker Reczek, an associate professor at Fisher.
“So we wondered what are the consequences of learning that someone else decides to be ethical when you yourself are not ethical,” Reczek said. “We thought this is a good time to investigate this question because social media has made it so much easier to know how others make decisions.”
The team’s research involved three studies. In the first experiment, students were asked to assess four brands of blue jeans and given the option to know if the pairs of blue jeans were manufactured ethically.
Researchers found participants who chose to remain in the dark about ethical manufacturing details negatively judged those who opted in during the first experiment.
The participants felt threatened, and that sense of threat made them put others down, negatively judging them as unfashionable or boring, said Reczek.
“We are uncovering a kind of human nature to compare people: themselves to others,” Reczek said. “It is called social comparison theory, a theory of psychology that shows it is a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others.”
Reczek said that if people found themselves inferior in some way to others, they feel threatened, and a common response to that threat is to put down the perceived superior ones.
Daniel Zane, co-author and graduate student at Fisher, said he thinks the research could help consumers be aware of the tendency, however, he added it would require considerable awareness and effort to not feel threatened and put the person down.
Zane said an extension of this research could be seen in the act of gift giving.
“Suppose you’re an ethical shopper, you specifically buy somebody a scarf that was made in a really ethical way,” Zane said. “But if they don’t shop based on ethical information, they will probably feel threatened even though it wasn’t them who made the purchase.”
Reczek said that their research also gives implications to manufacturers that if they do have products that are produced ethically, they need to make sure that consumers know that.
“Put ethical information on the label,” Reczek said. “Put it in the store, on the shelf. Put it on the package, because most consumers are not going to spend the time to seek out that information. Most consumers want to be ethical. The problem is that the market place doesn’t always make it easy to know what is ethical.”