Strategy

Conscientious consumers are cheaters

Researchers find that after acting responsibly, people more likely to cheat, steal.

Many consumers may be willing to pay top dollar for organic and eco-friendly products, but don’t count on them to be ethical or fair once they’ve stashed their duck-friendly dish soap in their reusable cloth bag.

A recent study by two assistant professors at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management found that while consumers’ overall behaviour is shifting toward greater social responsibility, the rise in ethical, or green consumption hasn’t made people more altruistic. In fact, consumers who purchase environmentally friendly products rather than conventional counterparts were found to be more likely to cheat and steal afterward.

The researchers believe that this dichotomy might be a classic case of the “licensing effect,” whereby people give themselves permission to behave badly after a noble move (or vice versa) — in a sense, balancing out of their good and bad self-image.

In an interesting twist, research showed a very different outcome for those who were exposed to eco-friendly products but did not buy them. This group acted more altruistically after their exposure, which indicates that being reminded of issues like energy use or fair trade does increase people’s feelings of responsibility — but that acting on those feelings risks cancelling them out.