Friday 3 June 2016

How We Talk Ourselves Out Of Supporting Ethical Behaviour

Readers, if you're a regular visitor to this blog, you are the right sort of people. You care about the environment, about worker expoitation, about how to make the world a better place. You have a good soul.

Which, if you believe a new piece of research from the US, makes you more irritating. Respondents to a survey were asked to assess a limited amount of information about a pair of jeans before deciding whether to buy them. They were given a choice of two out of four factors: price, colour, style, and whether child labour was involved. Those who chose not to know whether the jeans were ethically produced were then asked to think about the people who would.

The result: the respondents who weren't bothered about the ethical factor thought that the people who did were "unattractive, boring and odd." Charming.

However, as Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian points out, this is more about sour grapes than social attitudes. Or rather, something called social comparison theory. We all know we should care about ethical issues. If we choose not to, for whatever reason, we make ourselves feel better by belittling the people that do care. They may be more virtuous, but they dress funny and smell a bit, so nurr.

The theory is reinforced by another part of the study, which allowed people to donate to an ethical charity at no cost before taking the survey. These participants instantly felt better about themselves, and felt no need to put down their more ethical shopping partners. Having been given a chance to act nobly, they felt less threatened and didn't lash out.

There's a deeper and more worrying issue at the heart of the research. Doctor Rebecca Reczek breaks down the core problem:

In a similar study—using backpacks instead of jeans and replacing child labor with unsustainable manufacturing—we asked participants how interested they’d be in signing a pledge to be more sustainable. We found that subjects who put down ethical people were less likely to want to sign the pledge. That act of denigration undermined their commitment and their ethical values. Because they saw themselves calling people who took the time to research the sustainability information “odd,” “boring,” or “not fashionable,” they said to themselves, “I guess I don’t care much about sustainability,” and then they weren’t as interested in the pledge.

There's a lot to unpack here. We know we should care about ethical issues, but it's tough so we choose not to find out more and at the same time sneer at people that do–all to shore up our own sense of inadequacy at not caring. It's a tricky cycle to break, and I don't have any easy answers. All I can suggest is that you read The View regularly. That way, you can be informed, entertained and feel good about yourself.


I recommend a look at Doctor Reczek's research. There's an interview with her over at the Harvard Business Review that's well worth a coffee-break read.


No comments:

Post a Comment