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Research examines how ethics plays a part in decision making

September 22, 2020

Have you ever received too much change while shopping, and not given it back? How about jumping the fence to get into a music festival?

New research by Bond University PhD student Robyn McCormack is set to examine ethical consumption and the psychological processes that determine why people make the choices they do.

Ms McCormack, who has a background in marketing, said changing people’s behaviours around consumption was not easy.

“There’s such a dichotomy between what you want to do and what you actually do, and there’s constant trade-offs as an ethical consumer.

"As a marketer, it’s one of those areas where it’s really hard to know exactly how to tap into changing people’s behaviour.

"How do you overcome main drivers like price and quality and convenience? How do you get people to actually follow through with their ethical beliefs?

“If we just convert the people who are ethically-minded into ethical buyers we can make real change. We don’t have to change people’s attitudes; we just have to change the behaviours.

"But even as an ethical-thinking person, it’s really hard to do the right thing because there’s so many barriers.”

The core of Ms McCormack’s research is the Attitude-Behaviour Gap, defined as the gap between what ethical consumers believe and how they act.

“The current research suggests that although awareness has increased significantly, the actual purchasing behaviour hasn’t matched people’s beliefs,” Ms McCormack said.

She will also examine the locus of control, or the level of control people feel they have over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces such as global powers or corporations.

Another factor is moral disengagement, or people’s ability to turn their moral code on and off, which has predominantly been studied in criminology and considered as a way to explain why individuals commit crimes like genocide and rape.

Potentially of particular relevance to the average Australian is neutralisation techniques, the rationalisations and justifications people use to make themselves feel better when they do the wrong thing.

“For example, if you normally recycle, but there’s one time you can see the bin over there, it’s a really long walk and you can’t be bothered…you might make yourself feel better by telling yourself ‘I’ve recycled most of the time this week, this one time won’t matter,’” Ms McCormack said.

People’s levels of cynicism can also have an effect, and that in turn can be impacted by events such as the controversy earlier this year when the Australian Red Cross was found to have spent up to 10 per cent of its bushfire relief donations on administration costs.