Bridging the gap between opinions and actions

The 21st century consumer is a sophisticated one. Compared to past decades, especially prior to the sixties, we have greater access to information and we understand our rights better and we are more aware of our options. We’re not infallible, but we are more discerning and more informed than ever before. One topic we’re certainly more informed about is ethics. We know that various companies behave in what are commonly considered unethical ways, whether it’s unsustainable use of environmental resources or sweatshop labour or animal testing or creating pollution. If we look, we’re often able to find information about such practices. But how often do we do something about that? How often do we actually let ethical considerations shape our purchasing habits?

Rather infrequently, it seems, if this research paper is anything to go by.

It turns out that, despite the increased sophistication of consumers these days and the increased awareness of ethical issues, there’s very often a gap between any given consumer’s attitudes towards ethical issues and his or her actual behaviour concerning those issues: an attitude-behaviour gap, stretching between what a person knows and feels about ethical issues and problems and what they’re actually willing to do about it. A person might support an action, such as boycotting a company that has been revealed to use child labour, but whether that person actually does boycott the company is an entirely different matter.

If an issue is specific and high-profile enough, sometimes action on a large scale does happen. For example, the consumer boycott of Nestlé products due to its infant formula marketing practices has been estimated as having cost the company tens of millions of dollars. But that’s one conspicuous, highly publicised example, and is definitely a rarity. Despite having access to information about specific ethical concerns in relation to any given company or retailer, and despite consumers almost inevitably becoming aware of such issues through the ubiquitous media, on the whole apparently we’re still just not that motivated to actually do anything about it. We disapprove of it, but we don’t act on our disapproval.

A few studies have shown that, when it comes down to it, consumers simply don’t prioritise ethical and social issues when considering making a purchase, preferring to make their decisions based on price, value, quality and brand familiarity. And that’s perhaps the crux of it – when you have to consider so many other things in making a decision to purchase (and most of this blog is about the almost impossibility of the brain to make completely reasoned, unbiased, informed decisions), the additional effort of factoring in ethical considerations on top of everything else is almost overwhelming.

Is it possible to bridge the gap between attitude and behaviour, even when you decide to make ethical issues a priority along with price, value, quality and brand? Some people’s socioeconomic and financial position will prohibit them from making ethical issues a priority, which is understandable. But for those of us who do have the socioeconomic privilege of being able to factor in the additional issue of ethics in our consumer decision-making: we need to think about whether our actions match up with our attitudes. The more people who do try to carry their ethical attitudes through to actual actions, the more demand there will be for ethical behaviour and social responsibility from brands and companies.

So, as always, the message is: think critically. Think about how you’re thinking and be ruthless about criticising any inconsistencies – are you thinking one way but acting another? That’s what will truly make a discerning, informed consumer and will consequently actually make a difference in the world.

Scarcity and value – commodity theory

The threat of something becoming rare or unavailable seems to be a powerful motivator for action – an item’s diminished availability suddenly makes it seem that much more valuable and desirable, and in the context of consumer decision-making, it may drive the desire for and purchasing of a particular item. Obviously, economists and marketers know about the effects of scarcity on the perceived value of an object, and all those cries of “limited edition!” and “limited time only!” and “only while stocks last!” are of course designed to imply scarcity and make consumers more keen to buy. Commodity theory, first proposed by psychologist T.C. Brock in 1968, characterised the phenomenon from a psychological perspective, describing the relationship between the scarcity of an item and its perceived value. Many studies over the years have supported the relationship between the two things – the decreased availability of something does indeed lead people to value that thing more highly and consider it more desirable.

The psychological effects of commodity theory have been extensively exploited by fast fashion in particular (as described in this research paper, amongst many others). The entire premise of fast fashion is founded on fast production, fast responses to trends as they emerge, fast turn-over, and a pretty fast track to obsolescence for most items. Retailers thereby create an environment in which a particular item’s existence is fleeting – its shelf life is incredibly short because new items are constantly being introduced and slow-selling items are removed to make room for the new ones. People get to know that this is what fast fashion is about – companies like Zara and H&M and Top Shop have so wholly embraced the model that most people who shop at such places frequently enough know that if they don’t buy a particular item there and then, chances are it won’t be there when they come back the following week. It happens online too, for example, Lapin de Lune’s interaction with ASOS which she mentioned here on her Tumblr. All these retailers rely on their image of having a rapid rate of stock turn-over (supposedly in the name of staying on trend) to drive people to buy as impulsively and as frequently as possible.

That’s commodity theory at play right there. The rapid turn-over of stock and incredibly short shelf-lives form the perfect situation to create the perception that an item might become scarce at any moment, and you suddenly feel that it has become that much more valuable, perhaps prompting the compulsion to purchase the item before the opportunity disappears. It is a lucrative business model, obviously, but obviously it is not a system that is particularly encouraging of thoughtful, measured, circumspect consumption and decision-making.

Familiarity breeds affection

Why is it that you can look at something for months and months and have no discernible affection towards it, and then one day – you love it! You need to buy it and own it! It needs to be in your life! All of a sudden your attitude is totally transformed. It all seems a bit suspiciously impulsive, and it’s hardly the mentality of the thoughtful, circumspect consumer that many people would like to be. But it does happen from time to time, and it leads one to wonder – what flips the switch? Why do feelings of relative indifference transform into sudden admiration and a compulsion for ownership of the desired object? It might have something to do with a cognitive bias called the mere-exposure effect.

The mere-exposure effect describes how people tend to have a more favourable view of things they are familiar with; hence, merely being exposed to something can make you like it more than things that you haven’t been exposed to. Plenty of research over the decades has established it as a robust psychological phenomenon that is evident in a wide variety of contexts. For example, in one experiment, participants who weren’t familiar with Chinese characters were shown a series of them and asked to rate them. In the exposure stage, one group of participants was shown the same 5 characters five times each, and another group of participants was shown 25 different characters once each. In the testing stage that followed, all participants were shown a series of images – including a mix of characters they had just seen in the exposure stage and characters they hadn’t seen in the exposure stage – and were asked how much they liked each one. The liking ratings for characters the participants had seen before was higher than the ratings for the characters they hadn’t seen before. Also, the liking ratings were higher in the group who had seen the same 5 characters five times (so the characters felt more familiar) than in the group that had only seen 25 different characters. So the more you see something, the more it feels familiar and the more you like it. The group that saw the same 5 characters five times each also reported feeling happier after the experiment than the group that saw 25 different characters – evidence that simply creating feelings of familiarity can have a positive effect on your mood.

The twist here is that the participants weren’t even consciously aware of the characters they had seen in the exposure stage. Each character was flashed up for just 5 milliseconds – way too fast for anyone to consciously see. So during the subsequent testing stage, when the characters were flashed up for 1 second each and participants rated how much they liked each character, the participants had no idea which characters they had or hadn’t seen just before. They couldn’t recognise any of the characters as being familiar. Despite that, their brains had still performed basic visual processing of the characters, and subsequently the characters that participants had been exposed to during the exposure stage somehow implicitly felt more familiar and were consequently more greatly liked.

This means that even things that fly under your radar are being processed by your brain, and the more you see something, the more you might end up liking it, even if you’re not sure why. Of course, this isn’t true of absolutely everything – we don’t like everything we’re repeatedly exposed to, and sometimes being exposed to something too much is a bad thing because it creates too many associations and it all gets a bit confusing. But the mere exposure effect could have some sort of influence in driving us to like and desire things we might have otherwise been quite indifferent to.

A developmental basis to seeking and acquiring objects?

Materialism and consumerism are often thought of as the results of external, societal factors – they’re perhaps driven by the messages dispersed by the capitalist model in order to fuel itself, by advertising and media that create constant feelings of inadequacy and need and the desire to have all sorts of shiny, lovely things that promise to be totally fulfilling and totally make our lives that much better. But there’s another interesting factor to perhaps try to fit into the clunking, grinding cogs of whatever complex mechanisms do drive the lumbering behemoth of materialism/consumerism: what about internal, innate factors? Is there something about human brains that makes us place importance on material objects and that makes us seek them out?

There are probably a lot of theories out there about this sort of topic, the necessary emphasis being on the fact that they are theories – they’re usually not really hypotheses that are up for testing and validating, so they need to be taken with a grain of salt. But one theory I came across seemed to, at least to me, have a certain amount of face validity. It suggests that the reason so many of us are so keen on material objects, and on bringing them into our lives (usually courtesy of cash or a credit card), is perhaps the drive that made us explore and interact with our environments way back when we were babies.

Babies aren’t really good with concepts – you might have noticed that they tend to not learn about action and reaction, for instance, by reading books on Newtonian physics and contemplating Newton’s third law. They learn by throwing a building block and seeing it knock a teddy bear over, that sort of elegant thing. Not surprisingly, a healthy brain is going to encourage a young human to interact as much as possible with the environment, and that learning process presumably feels very rewarding. You can’t ask a baby how much he or she enjoyed pushing a pile of books and seeing it fall over, but the brain must be giving them a sensation that feels rewarding.

The fact is, back when you were an infant or a young child, objects were fascinating, amazing, informative, critical parts of your life and your development. They allowed you to learn about the environment and interact with it, to figure out what you could and couldn’t control and what impact you could have on your surroundings, to comprehend permanence and existence (like how things don’t cease to exist just because you personally can’t see them any more) and, ultimately, to figure out and understand the separation that exists between yourself and everything else. Objects at that age are key to a huge transformation of yourself, and you seek them out.

So is it possible, then, that the yearning adults feel to acquire objects is some sort of an echo of this early object-seeking behaviour? Do we keep seeking things out and buying things because we hope our brain will give us that incredibly rewarding buzz in return for interacting with something novel and interesting in our environment and transforming our understanding of our surroundings? As Ian Woodward says in his paper discussing this idea, “consuming things – or searching for them – becomes a search for a type of promise to be transformed by engagements with objects”. Perhaps we find enjoyment in being on the quest for such objects, because we anticipate their power to make a difference in our lives.

And it might seem ridiculous, but pretty much any item could be the one we think will change us and give us that sense of fulfillment. It’s not necessarily as noble as, for example, a potential photographer finally affording their first camera and being transformed by the discovery of their innate talent and passion for the medium. It’s more often like just some random everyday person expecting that their life will somehow be transformed if only they could buy that pair of shoes they really like but everywhere is out of stock in the right size. As Woodward says, “The irony here is of course that the most prosaic or mundane thing can be seen to promise transformation. The magical element of everyday consumption is that the most banal, emptied-out, seemingly trivial thing can be a most powerful container of cultural values and ideologies.”

The problem is that, unsurprisingly, no matter what we buy, we never really do get that amazing, insightful, transformative feeling back. It’s long gone because we comprehended the difference between self vs. other a long time ago.

This is all just a theory, and it can’t be empirically tested. Furthermore, there’s not necessarily any reason why the brain would retain the circuitry responsible for making you seek out novel objects, or would retain any memory of how rewarding that behaviour was, since the brain obviously undergoes a huge process of change and development from birth to adulthood and we do not retain a lot of the impulses and behavioural tendencies we had as infants. Indeed, the functioning of an infant brain is barely recognisable at many levels when compared to that of an adult one. But it’s interesting to consider whether innate object-seeking behaviours might persist and might have been co-opted by materialism and consumerism, rather than assuming that it’s society alone that gives us the impulse to seek and acquire objects.