Welfare recipients judged negatively when making ethical purchases: study

Apr 26, 2016

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Beedie School of Business assistant professor Brent McFerran.

Beedie School of Business assistant professor Brent McFerran.

Society believes that those on social assistance – or “welfare” – should not be paying a premium to purchase ethical goods instead of cheaper alternatives, according to a new study from Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.

The research found that consumers earning a moderate to high income who purchased ethical items – such as organic food, or environmentally friendly cars – were viewed as moral for doing so, while welfare recipients were judged immoral for making the exact same choice.

The paper, “Wealth and Welfare: Divergent Moral Reactions to Ethical Consumer Choices” was co-authored by Brent McFerran, assistant professor at the Beedie School of Business; Jenny Olson, assistant professor at the University of Kansas; Andrea Morales, professor at Arizona State University; and Darren Dahl, professor at University of British Columbia.

The academics ran five experiments, telling volunteers the incomes of the consumers making the purchases and asking them to make judgments accordingly.

The results consistently showed that consumers earning more money were viewed as more deserving of choice, and consequently were viewed as more virtuous when choosing ethical products.

The sole deviation in this trend occurred with organic food that had been reduced in price. In this instance, welfare recipients were viewed as equally moral as those who earned their money.

“The research suggests that society believes that people receiving government assistance should go for cheap alternatives – they are punished for making more expensive, pro-social choices,” says McFerran.

“The public views the choices made by those spending tax dollars as though it were our own money. Because consumers on financial aid receive greater scrutiny over their purchases they face not only financial challenges but cultural challenges as well. It is possible that this judgment could affect their decision making.”

The study also has implications for charitable organizations. One experiment demonstrated that participants donated less to charities who provide families in need with organic food, as opposed to conventional food.

The paper was published in the April edition of the Journal of Consumer Research. It was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Association for Consumer Research.