New research from Ohio State faculty finds consumers unconsciously ignore ethical concerns about how commodities are produced. Credit: Courtesy TNS

Two Ohio State researchers performed a series of studies that reveal the unconscious ignorance consumers face when dealing with products made unethically.

Rebecca Reczek, an associate professor of marketing, and Daniel Zane, a doctoral candidate in marketing, were both co-authors of the studies which uncovered the role that unconscious coping-mechanisms play when consumers make choices regarding purchasing unethical products.

“The majority of people I actually believe want to do the right thing, but it’s easy to fall prey to some of these biases when we’re relying on our memory,” Reczek said, adding: “We see this systematic bias in memory. They’re much more likely to forget negative ethical information than they are positive ethical information.”

The studies looked at how consumers were more forgetful about information regarding  products that were made unethically. For example, they looked at desks made with wood from rainforests and jeans made from child labor.

In the first study, 236 college students saw six descriptions of different fabricated desk brands. The descriptions included information about the quality, price and source of the wood, which was either acquired from sustainable tree farms or an endangered rainforest.

The students were asked to memorize the information and were tested shortly after on how much they could remember about each of the desks. About 94 percent of people could recall whether the wood came from the rainforest or from tree farms.

“That was to show that it was indeed that it wasn’t that they weren’t encoding this information in their memory upfront. They were able to memorize it upfront,” Zane said.

Afterward the participants were given an unrelated task to distract them for 20 minutes, and were then asked again about how much they could remember. The results showed 45 percent of participants could remember information correctly regarding the desk from rainforest-sourced wood, but 60 percent were able to remember correctly with the tree farm-source of wood.

In a follow-up study, 402 online participants were asked to choose an outfit from a selection of clothing items that included one pair of jeans — the ethical component of the study. The jeans were described as either being made with or without child labor. Half the participants saw the jeans made with child labor, and the other half saw them without.

“We wanted to show that this willfully ignorant memory holds true not only for recall memory but also for recognition memory. It’s not unique to desks, or to rainforest versus tree farm wood. Now we have a different product category and labor attribute,” Reczek said.

The clothing study further confirmed the results of the desk study, with a significant difference between the memory recall of the people who saw the unethically made jeans and those made ethically. With a 16 percent or 26 percent difference depending on the task participants were assigned.

“In some sense in [the second study], the recognition memory is actually more a conservative test of the hypothesis because they should be better able to get it right in recognition rather than recall,” Reczek said.

The researchers then took it a step further. They had participants judge a hypothetical man named Chris who bought jeans produced by children. However, half the participants were told Chris had known earlier that the jeans were made with child labor but forgot at point of purchase. The other participants were told that Chris remembered the information but purchased the jeans anyway.

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.

Zane said oftentimes consumer have go through a process in which they let themselves forget where an article of clothing, such as the jean in the study, come from.

“So, it seems that this coping mechanism is allowing that memory to be forgotten so that ‘I can feel good instead of feeling poor,’” Zane 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.

“If you really want to make purchases that are consistent with your values, don’t rely on your memory,” Reczek said. “So that means simple things like when you’re shopping, check up right there and then is this an ethical brand.”