The Backfire Effect of Sustainable Social Cues. New Evidence on Social Moral Licensing
Authors: Wassili Lasarov, Robert Mai, Stefan Hoffmann (Ecological Economics, 2022, 195 : 107376)
To encourage individuals to consume sustainably, managers and policymakers often highlight positive examples that others have set regarding sustainable consumer behavior (e.g., donations to a good cause). This study shows that under certain circumstances, this strategy provokes a paradoxical effect such that consumers deliberately deviate from these positive examples. Merging the concepts of social proof and social moral licensing, the paper proposes a conceptual framework that elucidates two opposite effects that underlie the responses to positively charged behaviors of others (sustainable social cues). Generally, positive group behavior can encourage individuals to conform to the behaviors of others, but social moral licensing can lead to norm deviations, especially for individuals who have consumed more sustainably in the past. This leads to the intriguing notion that it is particularly the more sustainably consuming individuals who are demotivated by sustainable social cues. Across three experimental studies, this paper shows the processes and conditions that explain when and how consumers follow or deviate from sustainable social cues. The effect is shown to occur in both lab conditions and a natural environment.
Keywords: Sustainable consumption, Moral licensing, Social moral licensing, Social proof, Motivational goal theory