COLUMBUS, Ohio – Do consumers care if their products came from processes that harmed the environment? Of course. But they also may conveniently forget that their product was unethically made.
In a study, a pair of researchers from Ohio State University determined that consumers often choose to be "willfully ignorant" of how their favorite consumer goods are made - often forgetting and misremembering information about their unethically-manufactured product.
“It’s not necessarily a conscious decision by consumers to forget what they don’t want to know,” said Rebecca Reczek, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “It is a learned coping mechanism to tune out uncomfortable information because it makes their lives easier.”
Reczek and her colleague Daniel Zane conducted several experiments for the study. In the first, 236 college students were asked to read and memorize descriptions of six made-up brands of desks. The descriptions discussed quality, price and an ethical dimension – the source of the wood. Participants read that the wood either came from sustainable tree farms or endangered rainforests.
When asked immediately after memorization, participants accurately recalled whether the wood came from rainforests or tree farms in 94 percent of the cases.
But those memories faded quickly. After the participants completed 15 to 20 minutes of tasks meant to distract them, they were then given a sheet of paper with all six desk brand names and were asked to write down as much as they could remember about each desk.
Participants were right 60 percent of the time about desks made from tree farms, but right only 45 percent of the time about desks made of 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,” said Zane.
“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.”
The results showed that forgetting negative ethical information is judged less harshly than remembering this information and ignoring it.
“Forgetting the ethical information is more morally acceptable than ignoring the information. So, this is sort of an acceptable way of coping” Reczek said.
Businesses with ethically made products might have a disadvantage when it comes to competing with products made unethically, due to this unconscious coping mechanism, the researchers said.
There’s a lesson for ethical companies too, Reczek said.
“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 said.