Monday, March 22, 2010

Are we "mean" if we're "green"?

A recently published study titled Do Green Products Make Us Better People? somehow has led to some articles suggesting that "green" consumers are meaner than non-green consumers. Hmm? It's clear that some are making "green" lifestyle choices (buying Prius's or shopping at Whole Foods) because of a kind of moral stand. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore repeatedly talked about the morality and ethics issue. It's likely that some people take their green choice as a way of internally telling themselves they are holier than everybody else and have more leniency to commit other sins. One might prefer however that people making a stand for higher morality would make other higher morality choices in their lives. But that may be a naive thought; for example the number of spiritual teachers who commit sexual transgressions (such as pedophilliac priests) indicates that we all have struggles with living to our moral standards and it doesn't matter how morally pure or impure we strive to live.

The study (link below) involves some experiments that are very abstract. Partly this has to do with the practice of Science where they like to isolate variables to minimize the number of external influences. But this leads to wholly artificial contexts that the human subjects are put in. This study for example had the subjects "shopping" in a totally artificial "online store" and drawing conclusions from their behavior in the artificial store. That is they did not study their real behavior in real stores in their real life, but their behavior in an artificial store.

After subjecting their subjects to an artificial store, they then subjected them to artificial social interactions meant to gauge their willingness to share money with others. First there's an assumption that a moral person shares money with others. But is it truly moral to share money with others? Let's say you're walking down the street and see someone with a sign out asking for money, what's the moral stance you take? I look at that person and decide between several choices based on who they appear to be, whether they appear to be capable of earning a living on their own, etc. It's not a simple choice based on simplistic formulation of "sharing money" is more moral than other choices.

While I have lots of qualms about the study the writeup has some interesting things to say.

"In the past few decades, consumers have become increasingly attentive to social and ethical considerations in areas such as energy consumption, animal husbandry, and trade" Great .. yeah .. there are other considerations to our purchases than how much money is spent. It's very important and I've written over and over about this. "This increased concern and feeling of responsibility for society has led to remarkable growth in the global market for environmentally friendly products" Yeah, I do see more products that label themselves as "green". However I'm not always convinced that the products in question actually are any better than other products. "...the assumption that purchasing choices express not only price and quality preferences, but also norms, values, and beliefs..." This is very true for me and to my understanding this is true for everyone. Probably these effects are buried in the subconscious as are so many of the other factors affecting our choices. "People do not make decisions in a vacuum; their decisions are embedded in a history of behaviors." Yeah.. what I just said.

One thing about the study and that "history of behaviors" comment is that they did not appear to connect the choices of the research subjects with their own history of decisions.

"Although mere exposure to green products can have a positive societal effect by inducing prosocial and ethical acts, purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors." As a main conclusion of the study it's rather interesting. However embedded within the statement and other discussion in the study is this concept of "priming" behaviors through exposure to concepts. They referred to a study where people were shown pictures of fancy restaurants and that affected whether the people then went on to eat with high society manners, or not. Hence a conclusion is that presenting certain images of positive social consequence could lead others to practice positive social behaviors. Or contrariwise shown images with negative social consequence could lead people to practice negative social behaviors.

In other words perhaps people playing violent video games will be influenced to more violent behavior?

But I draw another idea from this. These are psychologists studying the behavior of "consumers". I've heard about how the most brilliant psychological research is done around consumption and buying practices. The idea is that if a company can understand the buying psychology they can worm their way into the subconscious of consumers and cause them to buy more stuff. Hence stores are probably full of subtle psychologically derived cues that induce purchasing behavior.

It's helpful for the corporations to have consumers buy more stuff because that's how corporations live, by having more money flow to their coffers. But is it "green"? If one overconsumes "green" products with impeccable green credentials the truth still is that one has overconsumed. Part of the ecological problem we have is overconsumption. But if the companies cause us to overconsume because they have studied the psychology of green consumption and found the psychological cues to induce green consumption the result will still be non-green overconsumption.