Researchers have found that many consumers choose to conveniently forget that products have been made unethically. A series of tests revealed that consumers chose to forget the knowledge that certain desks were made with wood from rainforests or that jeans were made by child laborers.
The consumers not only forgot certain facts but also sometimes remembered the facts differently, stating that products were produced ethically when they actually were not.
“It’s not necessarily a conscious decision by consumers to forget what they don’t want to know,” said study co-author Rebecca Reczek, an associate professor of Marketing at Ohio State University. “It is a learned coping mechanism to tune out uncomfortable information because it makes their lives easier.”
For one of the tests, 236 college students were asked to memorize descriptions of six fictitious brands of desks. The descriptions discussed quality, price, and the source of the wood, which was either obtained from sustainable tree farms or endangered rainforests.
Immediately after becoming informed of the source of the wood for the desks, the participants accurately recalled where the wood came from 94 percent of the time.
After 15 to 20 minutes of distractions, however, participants could recall where the wood came from 60 percent of the time if the desk was sourced from tree farms, and only 45 percent of time when wood was sourced from rainforests.
“It is not that the participants didn’t pay attention to where the wood came from. We know that they successfully memorized that information,” said study co-author Daniel Zane.
“But they forget it in this systematic pattern. They remembered the quality and price attributes of the desks. It is only the ethical attributes that cause people to be willfully ignorant.”
For a second evaluation, 402 online participants were instructed to put together an outfit that included a pair of jeans. Half of the individuals were shown a brand of jeans that was described as being made with child labor, while the other half were presented with a brand of jeans made ethically.
Much like the first study, people who saw the jeans made with child labor were much less likely to remember this information than the others.
A third study suggested that forgetting this type of information makes consumers feel better about themselves.
For this analysis, a hypothetical person named Chris was described to the participants. Chris had bought a pair of jeans made with child labor and had prior knowledge of this. Some individuals were told that Chris forgot that the jeans had been made unethically when he bought them, while other participants were told that he did not forget yet simply ignored this fact.
“What we found is that people judged the person who forgot the ethical information as more moral than the person who ignored the information,” said Reczec.”So, for most people, forgetting is seen as the more acceptable coping strategy.”
The study is published online in the Journal of Consumer Research.