You have plenty of choices when you go shopping, and a lot of those choices mean ethical tradeoffs. Do you buy fair trade, locally sourced, and eco-friendly? Do you avoid products made with child labor and materials that wipe out ecosystems? Sure, we know what the “right” choice is, but there are other factors pushing us away—cost, quality, or design.
So how do people handle the ethical minefield in our shopping options? Some research shows that people can cope with this headache by simply forgetting the things that make a product unethical.
Ignorance is Bliss
In one study led by Dr. Rebecca Reczek, people were given a bunch of information about desks that they could purchase. For instance, they saw how expensive each desk was, how it was made, the style of the desk, its quality, etc. But they also learned where the wood it was made of came from. Sometimes the wood came from a renewable “wood farm.” Sounds great. But sometimes the wood came from a rainforest, which is a big no-no ethically speaking.
After ensuring that everyone learned all the information about the desks and really remembered it, the researchers distracted everyone with some irrelevant surveys. After 15 minutes or so went by and some of the desk information might have faded from memory, everyone was asked to write down as much as they could remember about the desks they saw.
For ethically made, wood-farm-supplied desks, 98% of the study participants correctly recalled where the wood came from. But for unethical rainforest desks, only 89% remembered and 11% conveniently misremembered where the wood came from or forgot about the source entirely.
Rather than rely only on what people can freely recall, Reczek and the team also conducted a study to see if people would recognize ethical product information when they saw it again. This time people learned about a pair of jeans. Like with desks, jeans have a bunch of characteristics—size, price, style—but they can also be more or less ethical. Specifically, sometimes the study participants learned about jeans made with child labor and other times they learned about jeans made with adult labor only.
Just like before, if the jeans were made with acceptable practices, 67% of people recognized this detail when they saw it again. But if the jeans were made with child labor, people only recognized this detail 46% of the time!
The story is consistent: people don’t tend to remember the things that make a product unethical as much as they remember the details that make it ethical. And the results seem to show that this is specific to ethics. Whether the price was high or low or the quality was outstanding or abysmal didn’t reliably affect whether people remembered that detail.
Unethical Details are Unpleasant
So why do people seem to forget the things that make a product unethical? Reczek and colleagues proposed that it helps people deal with a mental conflict. Specifically, when you learn that a product has some ethically dubious qualities, you may find it unpleasant to think about. And since people tend to prefer feeling good, they’d probably rather avoid information about unethical practices. But people also know that they should pay attention to the moral implications of their decisions.
They refer to this experience as a “Want/Should Conflict.” I want to focus on stuff that makes me happy, but I should pay attention to this miserable ethical red flag. So if I can conveniently forget that a product was made with child labor or bulldozed a rainforest, I get to avoid this conflict altogether!
Reczek and her team also found that people are more likely to excuse someone who makes an unethical purchase because he or she forgot the relevant detail than when the person remembered and ignored that detail. So forgetting also seems to be an especially acceptable way of dealing with that want/should conflict.
The Ethical Shopper
Of course, just because people are more likely to forget a detail that makes a product unethical than one that makes it ethical, it doesn’t mean people never remember that kind of information. It’s just that there’s some psychological incentive to let those kinds of details melt away. But indeed many people pay close attention to what makes products and companies potentially unethical. The question then becomes: if people would feel better if they could forget a product unethical qualities, why might they nevertheless persist in boycotting these products, and who is most likely to do so?