Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reverting to Type


Thanks to an anonymous benefactor -- who will undoubtedly make up for today's good deed by kicking a puppy -- I now have scientific evidence that public virtue leads to private vice. (And not the good kind of private vice, which leads to public virtue.)

A pair of Canadian psychologists, having noted that exposing people to the Apple logo makes people more creative, naturally assumed that buying green products would make people more ethical, "given that green products are manifestations of high ethical standards and humanitarian considerations."

Imagine their surprise when this hypothesis turned out to be almost as inaccurate as the premise on which it was based.

Mazar and Zhong said their study showed that just as exposure to pictures of exclusive restaurants can improve table manners but may not lead to an overall improvement in behaviour, "green products do not necessarily make for better people".
The only thing weirder than the assumption that green products could "necessarily make for better people" is the assumption that appearance and reality normally coincide when people make buying decisions.

Does all this mean that if I donate to charity, volunteer at a soup kitchen, take in a stray animal, protest an abortion clinic, or engage in any other activity that's typically viewed as an expression of "social responsibility and ethical conduct," I'm (arguably) slightly more likely to feel justified in stealing or cheating or lying? Or is it only green consumerism that threatens to activate my inborn propensity to Evil? Views differ, no doubt. Mazar and Zhong seem to lean strongly toward the former position, but there's no sense letting that get in the way of a good story.

What I found most interesting about their actual paper is the method by which people were identified as "conventional" versus "green" shoppers.
Upon arrival participants were led to a cubicle equipped with a computer and informed that they were going to engage in a number of unrelated tasks. They were first assigned to one of two online stores that carried a mix of green and conventional products but differed in the ratio of these two types of products: the green store carried nine green and three conventional products; the conventional store carried nine conventional and three green products....There was no difference in number of products, product categories, or price....

Participants in the purchase condition were invited to select products that they would like to purchase. Participants were offered to fill their baskets (maximum one item per product) up to $25 and were told that one out of 25 students would be randomly chosen to actually receive their purchased products.
Hmmm. So certain participants were designated as "green consumers," seemingly at random. And they were told to "shop" for goods that appealed to them, which only one out of 25 participants would actually receive. Would it be fair to say that this is an imperfect model of actual buying behavior, not least because it seems as though no money changed hands? And is it at all possible that the "green" participants' like or dislike of the products assigned to them made them more likely to take compensatory measures?

It's hard to say. The only thing that's reasonably clear is that these findings explain why everyone hates Algore, or should.
When Al Gore was caught running up huge energy bills at home at the same time as lecturing on the need to save electricity, it turns out that he was only reverting to "green" type.
Isn't science wonderful, sometimes?

UPDATE: Although the conclusions here, such as they are, apply to human behavior generally, Iain Hollingshead of the Telegraph finds it within himself to claim the opposite:
Most people are sufficiently balanced without having to swing to opposite ends of the moral spectrum. We can give money to charity without dipping into the company till at the same time....

No, what this study really does is to confirm our deep-rooted suspicion that there is something fishy about people who profess to be greener than thou.
Mazar and Zhong, of course, make no attempt to claim that there's something uniquely wrong with people who buy green products. Quite the opposite. And as noted above, it seems that the "green" participants in their study did not necessarily subscribe to any sort of green ideology whatsoever, let alone "profess to be greener than thou."

One wonders what good deed "licensed" Hollingswood to misrepresent this study to his readers.

1 comment:

jaytingle said...

Is that "Ice Station Zebra?" That was one of Howard Hughes's favorites.