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Low-income earners deemed less deserving to shop ethically, study finds

By RYLEY WHITE | JUN 07 2016

Do you eat organic fruit? Drive an eco-friendly car? If so, society likely thinks you’re a good person – unless you’re on welfare.

We don’t look kindly on those who use government financial assistance to buy expensive “ethical” items, according to a study published in a recent issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. Purchasing these same items while earning a medium-to-high salary, however, is perceived as a “moral” choice.

In five experiments, researchers asked volunteers to pass moral judgment on the ethical-item purchases of consumers with varying incomes. Participants consistently said that high-income earners deserved to buy the items, while low-income earners receiving financial assistance did not.

“The public views the choices made by those spending tax dollars as though it were our own money,” says study co-author Brent McFerran, an assistant professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University. “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.”

The study notes that this punishment could extend to charities; volunteers were less willing to donate to charities providing organic food to those in need compared to charities offering cheaper food.

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