‘Willfull Ignorance’: Shoppers Quickly Forget Ethical Issues With Products, Study Shows

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Consumers may wish to buy only those products made with sustainable materials or without any ties to child labor practices; but new research suggests that even when we know that a product does not live up to our ethical standards, we quickly tend to forget the ugly truth or scramble the facts.

Researchers at Ohio State University conducted a series of studies on consumer memories, and found that many “forgot” inconvenient truths, such as child labor being used to make a favorite brand of jeans or wood sourced from rainforests for that desk that would look perfect in the home office.

Woman shopping
New research suggests that even when we know that a product does not live up to our ethical standards, we quickly tend to forget the ugly truth or scramble the facts.

“It’s not necessarily a conscious decision by consumers to forget what they don’t want to know,” explains Rebecca Reczek, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at the university’s Fisher College of Business, in a release. “It is a learned coping mechanism to tune out uncomfortable information because it makes their lives easier.”

For one study, researchers asked 236 college students to read and commit to memory the descriptions of six fictitious brands of desks. Along with quality and price, an ethical element was discussed — the source of the wood. Participants were informed that the wood was obtained from either sustainable tree farms or endangered rainforests.

Participants were able to recall the wood sources with 94% accuracy right after their memorization efforts. But after just 15 to 20 minutes of distracting activities, the information was already evaporating. At the conclusion of the sidetracking tasks, participants were asked to write down all that they could remember about each of the six brands of desks. Accuracy dropped to 60% for desks made from sustainable tree farms and just 45% for desks made from endangered rainforest wood.

“It is not that the participants didn’t pay attention to where the wood came from. We know that they successfully memorized that information,” says study co-author Daniel Zane, a doctoral student in marketing at the university. “But they forget it in this systematic pattern. They remembered the quality and price attributes of the desks. It is only the ethical attributes that cause people to be willfully ignorant.”

In a second national online study, 402 people were tasked with putting together an ensemble that included a pair of jeans. For this study, about half of the participants thought that a pair of jeans they saw was made with child labor. The other half saw jeans that they understood to be made ethically, without child labor. As in the first study, people who had been told that jeans were made with child labor were much more likely to forget this information than those who viewed the jeans made by adult labor.

Forgetting about uncomfortable truths may be one way we cope and still feel good at the end of the day. But when it comes to the other person, researchers say this study shows that we can be mighty judgmental of others.

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Participants for this study were told about decisions “Chris” made when purchasing jeans. Some participants were told that Chris had been informed about the jeans being made with child labor but simply forgot at the point of sale. At other times, participants were told that Chris remembered the ethical issue but went ahead with the purchase anyway.

“What we found is that people judged the person who forgot the ethical information as more moral than the person who ignored the information,” says Reczek. “So, for most people, forgetting is seen as the more acceptable coping strategy.”

Zane says there is a way to shop ethically. “Don’t put something in your online shopping cart that you know was made unethically and say you’ll think about it,” he says. “By the time you come back, there is a good chance you will have forgotten what troubled you in the first place.”

Reczek finds that the same lesson applies to ethical companies. “Don’t make your customers rely on memory. Make sure you have reminders at the point of purchase that you’re an ethical brand,” she says.

The full study was published Dec. 8, 2017 in the Journal of Consumer Research. 

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