License to act irresponsibly?

On his blog, Dan Ariely cites recent research that he says has some implications regarding “green” consumption and the idea that one “green” purchase may give us “license” to feel we’ve done our part, we’re off the hook, and we can ignore such considerations in our next action (consumer action or other):

Through a series of experiments, Mazar and Zhong drew the following distinction between two kinds of exposure to green: When it’s a matter of pure priming (i.e., we are reminded of eco products through words or images), our norms of social responsibility get activated and we become more likely to act ethically afterwards. But if we take the next step and actually purchase the green product (thereby aligning our actions with our moral self-image), we give ourselves the go-ahead to then slack off a little and engage in subsequent dishonest behavior.

So in effect, a green purchase licenses us to say “I’ve done my good deed for the day, and now I can focus on my own self-interest.” I gave at the office, I paid my dues, I did my share — that sort of thing. How moral we choose to be at any given moment depends not only on our stable character traits but also on our recent behavioral history.

Forgive me for saying so, but there’s a similar point, based on different (but not that dissimilar) research, in Buying In. I riffed on a paper called  “Licensing Effect in Consumer Choice,” by Uzma Khan and Ravi Dhar, Journal of Marketing Research, May 2006. Here, cut and pasted, are three relevant paragraphs from Buying In:

Members of one group were presented with a straightforward consumer choice: Would they prefer to buy a vacuum cleaner (a utilitarian object) or a pair of jeans (a bit of a luxury), each of which was assigned the same price, $50? About 73 percent chose the more practical product, the vacuum cleaner. Members of the other group, meanwhile, were told to imagine they had volunteered to spend three hours a week performing community service; they could choose teaching children in a homeless shelter or “improving the environment.” They were asked to explain their choice, a process meant to prod them into engaging with the idea. Then they faced the vacuum-cleaner-or-jeans choice. In this group, a majority (57 percent) opted for the jeans.

A similar set of studies indicated that subjects were more likely to splurge on fancier sunglasses or pricier concert tickets after giving to charity. The researchers concluded: “The opportunity to appear altruistic by committing to a charitable act in a prior task serves as a license to subsequently make [the subjects] relatively more likely to choose a luxury item.” In explaining their decisions after the fact, very few subjects made a direct connection between doing a good deed and their subsequent purchase decisions. Evidently, their interpreters helped them come up with other explanations. But the study strongly suggested that doing good in one area of life provided a rationale to worry less about such things in another.

There are many ways to feel you’ve done a good deed—and there are many ways for a consumer to feel ethical. That’s why the previously mentioned LOHAS population seems so huge: This caring consumer can be someone who claims to buy ecological or “green” products or simply to be a consumer of anything from alternative health care to “personal development” offerings, including yoga or “spiritual products and services.” That’s a lot of options for the consumer to buy something and conclude: Hey, I’ve done my part.

Anyway really interesting stuff, I think, and I’m always interested to see research that acknowledges all behavior happens in a context — what we do next is influenced by what we did recently and so on — instead of addressing all consumer decisions as discrete, happening in some kind of vacuum. That’s how experiments work, but it’s not how life works. For more of Ariely’s thoughts see his post.