Psychological Study Finds Green Consumers Ethically Challenged

Typical Green Consumer?

A series of psychological experiments carried out by researchers at the University of Toronto suggest that consumers of green products may feel less obligated to act as altruistically in the rest of their lives.

The study, conducted by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong and published in the Journal of Psychological Science, asked one group of subjects to evaluate a website selling green products and another to actually buy products on the website. The study found that those who had merely been exposed to the green website acted more altruistically in a series of tests immediately afterwards.

But those who actually purchased products on the website were less likely to share money in the same exercises, and more likely to steal money when given the opportunity.

The study suggests people who have spent money on things they perceive to benefit society as a whole may feel they have “done their good deed for the day” and thus are more likely to choose less altruistically when presented with other ethical quandaries. The full study is available here (PDF).

From the conclusion:

While mere exposure to green products can have a positive societal effect by inducing pro-social and ethical acts, purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors.

Single Action Bias?

The New York Times argues that the study results may be related to the “single action bias,” which refers to the human tendency to resolve anxiety surrounding a particular problem — global warming for instance — by taking a single act which may not solve the problem but does reduce psychological distress attached to it.

Thus the hybrid Escalade.

Dieter Frey, a social psychologist at the University of Munich, told the Guardian that the Toronto study fits with what we know about ethical behavior. “At the moment in which you have proven your credentials in a particular area, you tend to allow yourself to stray elsewhere,” he said.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.