Ethical Decisions and Response Mode Compatibility: Weighting of Ethical Attributes in Consideration Sets Formed by Excluding Versus Including Product Alternatives

Journal of Marketing Research (JMR)
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Executive Summary
One of the most pervasive and puzzling inconsistencies in human behavior is the discrepancy between stated values and actual behavior. Psychologists have studied this attitude–behavior link across many contexts and have paid special attention to instances when people appear to be practicing “moral hypocrisy” by not reflecting their supposed moral beliefs in their observed actions. For marketers, this puzzle takes a concrete form; it is surprising that products embodying commonly held values do not perform better in the marketplace. For example, why does furniture made from rainforest (versus tree farm) wood continue to sell? Why have market forces not eliminated animal testing in the cosmetics industry? Why are corporations able to continue to mistreat workers, often with no obvious market reaction? In a 2005 article, Ehrich and Irwin show that part of the problem is that consumers do not ask for ethical product information even though they would use it if it were available.

For some product categories, however, ethical attribute information is readily available. In such cases, why might there be a discrepancy between values and behavior? Along with the myriad of other possibilities, such as hypocrisy, there may be contextual elements of the decision that guide consumers toward (or away from) considering the ethical possibilities.

For many product categories, the set of available product alternatives must be narrowed down to a smaller consideration set before a manageable decision can be made. In four studies, the authors establish that how a product consideration set is formed, either by excluding possibilities (termed “exclusion”) or by including possibilities (termed “inclusion”), affects the ethics of the resulting consideration set. They show that exclusion results in greater weighting of ethical attributes in consideration set formation, even though normatively which task is used should not have any systematic influence on attribute weighting. They also demonstrate that consumers judge others’ behavior more negatively if they exclude ethical products (as opposed to not including ethical products). Furthermore, the authors show that this effect is not due to alternative explanations, such as the positive/negative framing that influences choice or rejection among two alternatives or the added negative emotion in exclusion. Rather, they argue that the inclusion and exclusion tasks are differentially compatible with ethical attributes.

These results suggest that consumer consideration of ethical products is driven not only by motivational issues, such as hypocrisy and guilt, but also by simple cognitive issues, such as how context guides the decision in one direction versus another. The results have important implications for the marketing of ethical products, both specifically (e.g., it is important to encourage exclusion modes) and generally (e.g., failure to consider ethical products may reflect seemingly minor contextual issues guiding the decision process and not consumer disinterest in ethical issues).

Julie R. Irwin is Associate Professor of Marketing in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. She received her PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Colorado. She publishes both experimental and methodological research. Her experimental work explore how decision contexts influence the ethicality of product decisions and have been published in journals such as Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Rebecca Walker Naylor is Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. She holds a PhD in Marketing from the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests include consumer behavior and decision making, with a focus on transformative consumer research, research that contributes to the collective and personal well-being of consumers. Her research has appeared in Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Consumer Psychology, and Marketing Letters.

J Marketing Research, Volume 46, Number 2, April 2009
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