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Sociology Psychology The wilfully ignorant scoff at ethical consumers

Indian Summer

Cult Leader
This finding comes from a study published in Journal of Consumer Psychology:
"They [the wilfully ignorant] judged ethical consumers less positively on positive traits and more negatively on negative traits," Reczek said. "Willfully ignorant consumers put ethical shoppers down because of the threat they feel for not having done the right thing themselves. They feel bad and striking back at the ethical consumers makes themselves feel better."
More: People Who Turn A Blind Eye To Child Labor Tend To Ridicule 'Ethical Consumers' (4. January 2016 )

Sounds familiar?


Addicted Poster
Forum Moderator
Interesting study:

Do Less Ethical Consumers Denigrate More Ethical Consumers? The Effect of Willful Ignorance on Judgments of Others - Journal of Consumer Psychology - Elsevier

Layperson/media friendly abstract:

Willful ignorance is common whenever ethics are involved, and consumer behavior is no exception. Likewise, it is common for people to baselessly denigrate others when they feel threatened. The current research combines these two tendencies. Although most people are at least fairly ethical, this tendency is not always reflected in their market behavior.

When relevant ethical information is not readily available for a product they are considering, such as if a label does not indicate whether a good was manufactured under fair labor conditions, many consumers choose to avoid knowing the information even if it would not be difficult to obtain it (i.e., by asking a salesperson, looking it up on the Internet, etc.). Ethical issues are difficult to think about and could potentially force people to choose a product they otherwise do not want, and so ethics are tempting to ignore. However, could this willful ignorance have any long-lasting (and unforeseeable) negative consequences for the willfully ignorant consumers?

This research shows that willful ignorance of ethical attributes has real costs both to the willfully ignorant consumer and to the consumers who do act ethically. Three studies showed that consumers who choose to remain willfully ignorant of ethical information in turn denigrate consumers who do consider ethical information from the start. Instead of praising these more ethical individuals for doing the right thing, people judge them negatively on a variety of irrelevant traits such as “fashionable” (i.e., ethical consumers are judged to be less fashionable) and “boring” (ethical consumers are considered more boring)—despite the fact that there is no substantive evidence for these negative judgments. Willfully ignorant consumers put ethical consumers down because of threat they feel for not having done the right thing themselves. We know that the denigration results from feelings of ethical threat because the studies support that it does not occur for judgments of people who remain ignorant of non-ethical attributes (such as average manufacturer delivery time) or when it is easy to justify not looking at the ethical information (e.g., due to time constraints). Also, most tellingly, when willfully ignorant consumers are given a second opportunity to do something ethical (e.g., donate to charities) before judging ethical consumers, they do not resort to denigration because this second opportunity reduces the ethical threat.

“Overall our work indicates that feeling unethical relative to others causes discomfort that is relieved by deciding that ethical people are actually unsavory in some way,” said the authors. Thus, people who remain willfully ignorant about how their products are manufactured, where the materials come from, and/or the environmental implications of the products (i.e., all consumers, at least sometimes) are likely to “put down” anyone who behaves better than they do. Worst of all, though, the authors also find that denigrating more ethical consumers just because they appear more ethical makes us become less reactive to ethical issues and even less likely to behave in an ethical manner in the future. Describing the impact of their work, the authors wrote, “Taken together, the cycle of unethical consumerism uncovered by these studies may help explain why there is a discrepancy between our ethical desires and how we actually behave in the marketplace.”

This work is likely to be interesting to anyone curious about behavioral economics and the inconsistency of decision making and judgment, especially in the areas of ethical consumerism. It is also likely to be interesting to marketers and consumers of goods with environmental and human rights implications who wonder why market behavior does not seem to match stated intentions whenever morality is involved. Firms wanting to use ethical attributes as a selling point might consider making this information readily available to all consumers, for example, by placing this information on the product’s packaging. Doing so not only could attract willfully ignorant consumers who would otherwise ignore this information, but also could prevent ethical consumers who would have sought out this information even if it wasn’t present from being judged harshly by other consumers.
This article has more information from the study: The ugly consumer: Ridiculing those who shop ethically | News Room - The Ohio State University

“It is this vicious cycle,” said Rebecca Walker Reczek, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
“You choose not to find out if a product is made ethically. Then you harshly judge people who do consider ethical values when buying products. Then that makes you less ethical in the future.”

Walker conducted the study with Daniel Zane, a graduate student at Ohio State’s Fisher College, and Julie Irwin, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. The results appear online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology and are slated to be a published in a future print edition.

In earlier research, Irwin had found that consumers often choose to be “willfully ignorant” when it comes to how their favorite consumer goods were made. They will consider ethical information, such as whether a product was made using fair labor practices and in an environmentally friendly way, if it is readily available, such as on product packaging. But they won’t go through the trouble of looking on a website or asking a salesperson.
For this new research, Reczek and her colleagues conducted several experiments to determine the consequences of this willful ignorance.

In the first study, 147 undergraduates were told they would be evaluating four brands of blue jeans that differed on only four attributes: style, wash, price and a fourth attribute. The fourth attribute pertained either to an ethical issue (whether the company used child labor) or a control issue (delivery time for the jeans).

Participants were told that due to time constraints, they could choose only two of the four attributes to make their evaluations. As expected, most of the participants who were given the opportunity to know whether the jeans were made with child labor chose to remain “willfully ignorant.”

That was key to the next part of the study, in which the same participants provided their opinions about different types of consumers, purportedly for market segmentation purposes.
Those who were willfully ignorant about child labor use on the jeans they evaluated were asked to rate consumers who would choose to research clothing manufacturers’ labor practices before making a purchase. The finding? These participants were more likely to denigrate these ethical consumers as odd, boring and less fashionable, among other negative traits.
“They judged ethical consumers less positively on positive traits and more negatively on negative traits,” Reczek said.

However, participants who didn’t choose to find out about delivery times on the jeans they evaluated didn’t judge those who did investigate delivery times more harshly. It all had to do with the ethics.

“Willfully ignorant consumers put ethical shoppers down because of the threat they feel for not having done the right thing themselves,” she said. “They feel bad and striking back at the ethical consumers makes themselves feel better.”

Another experiment demonstrated why the threat of feeling unethical was a key driver for the actions of the willfully ignorant. This experiment was much like the first. But in this case, the willfully ignorant consumers were later given the chance to click a button on a website that would make a donation to a charity.

In this case, willfully ignorant participants who donated to charity did not harshly judge consumers who acted ethically when buying products.

“If we give people a chance to prove that they are indeed ethical, they don’t judge more ethical consumers as harshly,” Reczek said.

A third study showed what could happen when people choose to remain willfully ignorant about ethical concerns when shopping. In this experiment, consumers who didn’t consider environmental concerns when choosing a backpack – and denigrated those consumers who did -- were less likely to later support a pro-sustainability “Think Green Pledge” online.

“After you denigrate consumers who act ethically concerning a specific issue, you actually care a little less about that specific issue yourself,” Reczek said. “This may have some disturbing implications for how ethical you will act in the future.”
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Well Known Member
I encounter this so often about many different "unpopular" choices I have made, not just veg*nism. It's hard to know when to keep quiet and when to stand up for what you believe.

I am always afraid that I am "giving X a bad name" when I mention that I am also Y.

I guess the big question is: how do we avoid triggering this reaction without staying silent about our choices and the ethical aspects of being a consumer?
It's interesting how Whole Foods coop, at the cash register, gives credit for each reusable bag the customer uses. They give the choice to donate it to charity. According to this study, this probably helps their customers to not be jerks to the ones reading the labels...


Addicted Poster
Forum Moderator
That might also explain why many companies producing vegan products are reluctant to put a "vegan" label clearly visible on it ... the people interested in veganism will read the ingredients and see the small mention at the back of the package, while those scoffing at veganism and other compassionate life choices might be prompted to take another product instead by their guilty conscience.