Being good for long stretches at a time is exhausting. It’s the reason why dieters have an easier time sticking to their diets when they plan cheat days, and why employees are more productive if they take breaks throughout the day (and why working as you eat your sad desk lunch can feel so very sad).
And, according to a column recently published in the Harvard Business Review, it’s also the reason why companies should be wary of trumping up the ethical nature of their wares: All that feel-good shopping — like buying fair-trade goods, or from one of those stores that donates some of the proceeds to charity — can actually turn people into bigger jerks once the money’s changed hands.
The column’s authors, Maryam Kouchaki and Ata Jami (professors at Northwestern University and the University of Central Florida, respectively), attributed the phenomenon to “moral licensing,” or the idea that acting morally now allows you to shrug off those morals late. Shopping, the authors noted, can provide some prime examples of moral licensing in action: One 2010 study, for example, found that people who chose environmentally products were more inclined to later cheat on a test; another study from 2006 found that people who imagined themselves behaving generously were more inclined to splurge on a selfish indulgence over a home necessity.
And in a series of experiments Kouchaki and Jami recently published Management Science, the pair found that trumping up the moral nature of certain products could have the same effect. But the finding came with a caveat:
[In one experiment] participants viewed a short 40-second Starbucks commercial that either praised a customer for making an ethical purchase (it used phrasing such as: “Everything we do, you do. You buy more fair trade certified coffee than anyone else”) or praised the company for its ethical business practices (“Starbucks is the biggest buyer of fair trade coffee in the world”). Think of these frames as customer praise (“Look at the good you’ve done for society”) and company praise (“Look at the good we’ve done”). After viewing the messages, people were asked to make hypothetical choices about buying unrelated products. For example, participants had to choose whether they’d buy traditional or eco-friendly batteries. We found that people chose the eco-friendly batteries less after viewing the ad that praised them for a good choice—33.3% of those who saw customer praise chose the eco-friendly batteries, whereas 69.6% of those who saw company praise chose the eco-friendly batteries.
In other words, the framing mattered: If the message was meant as a pat on the back, it inspired moral licensing; if it was meant to inspire admiration for the seller, it didn’t. “While highlighting an individual’s personal progress or contribution with regard to social impact is more likely to backfire, focusing consumers’ attention to a cause may lead to more positive behavior,” the authors concluded. In conclusion: Don’t be too smug about buying all-organic everything. The best kind of ethical shopping is the kind that’s done quietly.