Category Archives: Ethics/sustainability

Depleted cognitive self-control: impact on ethical decisions

I have previously written about how self-control can be depleted, leading to impulsive actions that prioritise short-term, less-than-ideal gains. Some research suggested that this might be because people fail to put together a plan of action that would prevent the lapse of self-control occurring, and that self-control might be re-established if, when in a tempting situation involving a choice between two conflicting options, we take the time to think about our long-term goals and the specific details of how we want to achieve them.

A lapse of self-control can have undesirable consequences for the individual. Persistently valuing enjoyable but unhealthy foods rather than prioritising longer term dietary goals could result in all sorts of negative health outcomes; persistently valuing the thrill of an impulse purchase over a more considered, thoughtful approach to buying items can result in a lot of money wasted and a whole lot of space taken up by things you don’t want or need. But what about further consequences to impaired self-control? When your self-control is depleted, what sort of wider impact might that have?

When it comes to self-control and ethics, it looks like there might be a problem. Gino and colleagues (including Dan Ariely – a research psychologist and behavioural economist whose pop science books on decision-making you might have come across before) conducted a series of experiments to find out what effects depleted self-control would have on moral awareness and behaviour (“Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behaviour” in the journal Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes). Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that depleted self-control had consequences for behaviour and choices in a range of ethical situations – short-term, unethical choices with a quick pay-off were prioritised over longer-term, more ideal goals. You can imagine the potential magnitude of the consequences of that in the real world.

In one experiment, Gino and colleagues examined whether self-control depletion led research participants to cheat on a problem-solving task (they could cheat by overstating their performance, which would get them more money at the end of the task, so there was a financial incentive to cheat). Self-control was depleted by showing one group of participants a soundless video of a woman being interviewed, with irrelevant words appearing as subtitles at the bottom of the screen – these participants were instructed to focus on the woman’s face and ignore the words, which requires plenty of self-control (you can do the Stroop test to see just how difficult it can be to ignore written words and how much control you need to exert to ignore them). Another group, the control group, was shown the same video but weren’t given any instructions – they could look wherever they wanted on the screen. The results? 34% of participants in the self-control depletion group cheated by overstating their performance, whereas only 13.7% of participants in the control group cheated – a significant difference.

Subsequent experiments revealed that self-control depletion actually made participants less aware of ethical situations and ethics-related concepts – once self-control was worn down, the topic of ethics was kind of de-prioritised and placed at the back of the mind.

Still, in that initial experiment, only 34% of people cheated after being depleted in self-control. What could be an influencing factor in who does or doesn’t cheat when given the opportunity? A person’s individual sense of morality and ethics probably plays a role, and the researchers investigated this by using a questionnaire to assess how central a sense of ethics/morality was to each participant – how strongly their self-identity hinged on this sense of being a moral and ethical person.

Again, the findings are perhaps unsurprising. Individuals with a strong moral identity (ones who considered it important for themselves to feel that they were caring, compassionate, fair, friendly, generous, helpful, hardworking, honest and kind) didn’t cheat that much more when their self-control was depleted compared to when their self-control wasn’t depleted. People with low moral identity cheated much more after depletion relative to when they weren’t depleted.

It’s interesting to consider how this might apply to other ethical situations we might encounter in daily life. When, as consumers, we have the option to purchase something of ethically dubious provenance (for example, clothing from high street retailers who are known to have a poor track record in terms of ethical production lines or sustainable use of environmental resources), are we more likely to choose the less ethical option if our self-control has been worn down? The experiments conducted by Gino et al. demonstrated that self-control can be worn down in different, seemingly irrelevant ways (such as having to ignore the presentation of words, or having to write an essay that doesn’t contain certain letters of the alphabet) and still have an impact on ethical choices. So after a long day at work and exerting self-control in order to stay focused and productive, we’re all probably pretty cognitively depleted, and that might mean impaired ethical awareness and increased favour towards unethical options that offer swift pay-off. Gino and colleagues also demonstrated, in a final experiment, that resisting the temptation to cheat depletes self-control as well – so trying to prioritise an ethical choice might wear you down to the point where you make an unethical one. And this is complicated by the influential factor of identity – all these things may only be an issue for you in proportion to how important a particular ethical position or issue is to you and your identity.

It’s difficult to predict how generalisable the results of the Gino et al. study are to other ethical situations – cheating for monetary gain is one quite specific scenario, but there are plenty of other contexts and quandaries of an ethical or moral nature, and the stakes might be sufficiently different to change the effects of self-control depletion on moral/ethical choices (consider how complicated it might be to examine the effects of self-control depletion in a situation with ambiguous moral outcomes, such as the classic moral dilemma, the trolley problem). The main implication of this study’s findings, however, is that depleted self-control does seem to lead to prioritising short-term, unethical options that have quicker pay-off (such as receiving more money at the end of the experiment) over long-term, ethical options with less clearly defined pay-off (such as maintaining an ethical and fair approach in life and whatever satisfaction and benefits might be derived from that). Additionally considering the self-control depletion research I previously discussed, which found that lapses of self-control seem to be due to poor planning of responses to resolve the conflict between choices, a few recommendations might be made:

(1) Avoid having to make choices with an ethical component following an activity that might have depleted your self-control, e.g. if you aim to be an ethical consumer, try not to go shopping after a long day at work when you are likely to be cognitively depleted.

(2) If having to make that choice when you’re depleted is unavoidable (e.g. you have to purchase a birthday present for a friend, and the friend’s birthday is tomorrow, and you really want to give your friend the present tomorrow, meaning you have to buy something tonight directly after work, even though it has been a really tough day and you are probably very much cognitively depleted!), have a mental action plan of how you would achieve your long-term goal of being a more ethical consumer and consider those details when you are tempted to purchase an item that doesn’t fit well with your more ideal goals.

(3) Purposefully direct your attention to alternatives as part of your mental action plan. If you dwell too much on the less ideal item you’re thinking about purchasing, the effort to resist purchasing it could be enough to wear down your self-control until you cave in and buy that not-so-brilliant option anyway.

The value of ethical appearances

Following up to my previous post, it’s important to consider what motivates a brand or company to want to be perceived by consumers as ethical. As nicely summed up in this paper, “morality has become an important factor for corporate brands, and an increasing number of companies are using the ethical dimension as a strategic element in terms of defining and promoting their brands”. You might think that it ultimately might not matter how ethical a company is or seems, since consumers are happy to say they want to buy ethically produced items but then don’t actually do so in practice. In light of that, you might think that a company that acts ethically might be choosing to act ethically because they really do wish to act ethically. Some [likely smaller] companies probably do conduct their business according to that sentiment (or were even founded with that sentiment in mind). But enormous international companies with shareholders to please and profits to maintain and extensive expansions to undertake? It’s probably going to be a bit more complicated.

Such a company might be motivated to pursue more ethical practices because it actually works out cheaper for them, which could be considered a not particularly virtuous win/win situation. For example, a company that decreases its energy costs per square metre of store space is decreasing its carbon footprint per square metre of store space (which, on the face of it, seems ethical), but more efficient energy measures also mean decreased energy consumption and decreased energy costs. So it might not be an entirely altruistic effort with only the good of the planet in mind, but ultimately some good comes of it.

But another more subtle factor to consider is what such a company stands to gain from appearing ethical to consumers (whether it’s through genuinely engaging in ethical practices or only making superficial efforts to seem ethical, or a mixture of both). What’s in it for the company?

Being perceived as ethical increases brand loyalty

A company that successfully portrays itself as being sustainable engenders increased brand trust and more positive brand affect (i.e. consumers’ feelings towards the brand), and these result in greater brand loyalty. Increasing these things likely results in increased patronage and increased profits. Quoting from the paper ‘Does Having an Ethical Brand Matter? The Influence of Consumer Perceived Ethicality on Trust, Affect and Loyalty’:

“…this research sheds light on one of the main concerns of marketing managers worldwide: do investments in CSR [corporate social responsibility] and ethics pay off at the corporate level? Of course, brands should behave ethically independently of the potential impact of such behavior on the bottom line. Moreover, in a connected world that has made brands more transparent, truly ethical behavior will be necessary to succeed in any marketplace. However, the findings of this research suggest that CPE [consumer perceived ethicality] positively impacts the product brand loyalty, and so can help facilitate customer retention, secure future purchases, and foster recommendation.”

So securing brand loyalty by being (or seeming) ethical pays off.

Consumers do pay attention to unethical behaviour

Despite that gap between ethical purchasing intentions and actual purchasing behaviour, consumers do have a reasonably complex awareness of potential ethical issues that might be associated with brands. As reported in the paper ‘Exploring origins of ethical company/brand perceptions — A consumer perspective of corporate ethics’, surveyed participants thought of issues in 36 different sub-categories that could describe possible ways that a company could act that would affect its ethical image: pollution, exploitation of labour, supporting questionable political regimes, involvement with charities, animal protection, pushing competitors out of business, fair trade involvement, corruption/bribery, sustainable farming, corporate travel policies and intellectual rights, among others. Given that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of these issues, brands need to make efforts to avoid being seen as unethical, as “often, unethical perceptions are at the root of a faltering company/brand image and reputation, with a potentially detrimental effect on consumer attitudes and purchase behavior following in its wake”. Especially since other research suggests that as consumer ethical awareness increases, that gap between purchase intentions and purchase behaviour will close.

Modelling the data shows that sustainable efforts improve profits

Depending on other assorted factors (such as customer satisfaction and brand innovativeness), sustainability efforts could increase profits. As reported in the paper ‘Corporate social responsibility, customer satisfaction, and market value’:

“Our finding that CSR [corporate social responsibility] contributes positively to market value suggests that managers can obtain competitive advantages and reap more financial benefits by investing in CSR. To be more specific, we calculated that for a typical company in our sample with an average market value of approximately $48 billion, one unit increase of CSR ratings would result in approximately $17 million more profits on average in subsequent years, a substantial increase of financial return”

In general, this is all something to keep in mind when considering your perception of a company that is positioning itself as ethical. It’s important to critically evaluate the information that is presented by a company about its ethical position. This is even more important given what I’ve said above because companies would have a vested interest in seeming ethical rather than being ethical, since successfully creating an image of being ethical could have financial benefits. You need to be able to critically evaluate the information that’s presented if you’re going to know whether a particular “ethical” initiative is a genuine effort or just lip service, otherwise you can’t assemble a clear idea of your position on a company nor make an informed decision regarding whether to be one of its customers.

Brand attachment and judging ethical behaviour

I’ve written previously about the gap that seems to exist between consumers’ ethical values and consumers’ actual, practical application those ethical values. Even though a lot of us would like to buy in a more ethical and sustainable way, when it comes down to it, we sometimes (or perhaps frequently) don’t. Of course, there are plenty of factors that affect whether we enact our desire to consume more responsibly – the availability of sustainable items, the cost (relative to alternative items and relative to one’s own budget), the quality and range of more responsible options, etc.

Another thing that affects purchasing in general is, of course, brand attachment. Attachment in this context results in brand loyalty and commitment and willingness to pay higher prices to obtain that brand’s products. This is what pretty much every company and brand will be aiming for, so you can be sure that they’re doing what they can to facilitate brand attachment. How attached you are to a brand depends on the affective experiences it offers you (so what emotions it induces in you) and brand characteristics (for example, whether it seems to share values with you, whether it seems to have a brand personality that matches yours, etc.), among other things. But what are the consequences of being attached to a brand? Well, one of them, as investigated by Schmalz and Orth (2012), is how brand attachment influences people’s reactions to unethical behaviour by the company, firm or brand they’re attached to.

Does brand attachment shelter brands from negative publicity? Are brand devotees willing to overlook unethical behaviour, and if they are, to what extent? It’s interesting to think about these questions, given the pretty frequent media reports of relevant occurrences of unethical behaviour. The examples in Schmalz and Orth’s paper include when Nokia moved one of their production facilities from Germany to Romania to take advantage of cheaper labour (and German consumers got rid of their Nokia phones in protest); when Apple was exposed as having used covert video recording of employees in an attempt to reduce theft; and when it was found out that suppliers were plucking live geese to obtain down for a range of Ikea products. Obviously there are plenty of cognitive biases to help us deal with the cognitive dissonance of buying from brands even when we strongly disapprove of their actions, but what role does brand attachment play?

The researchers were interested in the extent to which brand attachment influenced consumer judgement, so they wanted to have two different levels of “unethical” behaviour – moderately unethical and highly unethical – and to see if brand attachment influenced judgement of the unethical behaviour differently between the two levels. What’s the difference between moderately and highly unethical behaviour? In this study, moderately unethical behaviour was when a brand engaged in negative behaviour but then offered some sort of compensation, whereas highly unethical behaviour was when the brand engaged in negative behaviour and didn’t offer compensation. This is one of the hypothetical example scenarios from the paper:

Coca-Cola has announced intentions to build a new plant. Space for the new plant will be allocated from a local nature reserve. While the German Society for Nature Conservation (NABU) has voiced strong concern about likely damage to the breeding grounds of red-listed white stork, Coca-Cola emphasizes that it will bring 2000 new jobs to the economically underdeveloped region.

Moderately unethical scenario:
To assuage project opponents, Coca-Cola states that even more jobs will be created in the near future through a projected increase in the plant’s output over the next years.

Highly unethical scenario:
Opponents of the project argue that the net job creation will be zero as Coca-Cola merely shifts production from one region to another.

Opinions of whether those two scenarios really are moderately and highly unethical, respectively, will vary hugely, but overall what the researchers were interested in was the difference between the moderately unethical scenario and the highly unethical scenario. So even if you personally thought that neither scenario was particularly unethical, or both were highly unethical, it’s still likely that you’d evaluate the second one more negatively than the first one.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that brand attachment does shield a brand from negative evaluation from consumers, but only when behaviour is moderately unethical – not when it is highly unethical and without any mitigating circumstances. When you’re strongly attached to a brand and they do something moderately unethical, you don’t judge them as harshly as someone who is only weakly attached to the brand. However, when the brand does something highly unethical, strongly attached people judge them just as harshly as weakly attached people. Developing customer loyalty therefore softens the blow for brands when they do something generally considered to be moderately unethical, but it won’t protect them if they do something objectively awful.

However, there’s another factor at play here that probably makes an immeasurably huge difference – the country of the people in the study and the country where the hypothetical unethical scenarios are set. This study was conducted in Germany and the scenarios were all about hypothetical events that occurred in Germany. It’s not relevant that it’s Germany specifically, but it is relevant that the unethical events are occurring in the same country as the people being asked to judge the unethical events. I think the results might have been different if the country in which the events occurred was different (geographically and/or culturally) from the country in which people were being asked to make the judgements. Limited familiarity with another country and its culture and standards of living make it more difficult to judge (or perhaps easier to dismiss, unfortunately). Consequently, maybe a brand could get away with unethical behaviour on the other side of the world, and the person making a judgement of the unethical behaviour won’t feel so personally impacted and therefore brand attachment might trump even highly unethical behaviour.

People’s attachments, whether to brands or to other people or to whatever, are complex and dynamic, so future research needs to investigate the other factors that influence the relationship between brand attachment and judgement of unethical behaviour.

The evident expense of ethics

I will endlessly recommend Lucy Siegle’s fascinating book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World?, because anyone who participates in purchasing fashion and is economically privileged enough to make informed choices about what they buy really should read that book. I cannot even begin to summarise the dire state of the fashion cycle, from the sourcing of the raw materials to the production of garments and accessories to the disposal of everything that’s so willingly discarded. Avail yourself of Siegle’s book and find out for yourself. Suffice to say it’s all in a pretty bad state, ethically and sustainably, and if you ever wanted something to put you off nonchalantly waltzing into a shop and buying whatever took your fancy, this book will do it, I promise.

On the topic, it seems like one of the impediments that ethical fashion will encounter is the unwillingness of consumers to pay more for those ethically produced garments. The garments indeed will cost more – that’s a corollary of ensuring an appropriate wage and working conditions for everyone along the whole the production line.

How much more do people assume they’ll have to pay to get an item that’s ethically produced? If the results of a study looking at people’s attitudes and opinions towards purchasing ethically produced beauty products are generalisable, it seems that people expect that they’ll have to pay 30-40% more for ethically produced items compared to non-ethically produced items. That’s certainly discouraging to anyone who has to be conscious of their budget. There might be a desire to buy more ethically, but it might simply prove to be impractical due to the much higher prices.

Except according to industry standards, it actually only costs an extra 2-6% to ensure higher, ethical wages for workers. Not so challenging to deal with, perhaps, even if you’re on a budget.

And amazingly, it also turns out that people report that they are willing to pay about the very same amount, around 2-6% extra, for an ethically manufactured item. So they’re willing to pay how much it actually costs, but they’re simply unaware of the actual cost, and they’re deterred by how much they think it will cost.

Sounds like something’s begging for an awareness campaign…