Forgetting Inconvenient Facts

Consumers “forget” that a product was made unethically if it’s something they want to buy.
Forgetting Iconvenient Facts - Main

Illustration by Alex Nabaum


IS IT OK if those cute jeans were made by child labor? Most consumers would say no—but many forget about inconvenient facts when making purchases, according to four scholars who study consumer behavior.

Consumers often encounter product information that exposes broader ethical problems, such as the fact that furniture is made of wood from endangered rainforests or clothing is made by child labor, say Rebecca Walker Reczek of The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business in Columbus; Julie R. Irwin of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin; Daniel M. Zane, also of the Fisher School; and Kristine R. Ehrich of the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University in California.

The authors find that consumers are more likely to forget when a product is made unethically than when a product is made ethically. Forgetting this information is a coping mechanism that allows the consumer to resolve conflict between the part of the self that wants to make ethical choices (called the “should” self ) and the part that would rather focus on fun, positive things (the “want” self ).

In one study, the researchers asked consumers to memorize information about desks made with wood from endangered rainforests versus desks made with wood from sustainable tree farms. They found that even customers who correctly memorized the information would show systematic memory bias when asked to recall it within 15 to 20 minutes. They were more likely to forget when a brand was described as unethical—failing to recall where the wood came from, for instance—than when it was described as ethical. The same results were found in a study involving two brands of jeans. Participants did not show the same pattern of forgetting with nonethical attributes such as price.

In a final study, participants were asked to rate consumers who learned that the brands they were interested in were unethical, but who purchased them anyway—either because they ignored the information or because they forgot it. Participants judged the ones who had forgotten the information as more ethical than those who ignored it. The researchers believe this suggests to consumers that “forgetting” negative ethical information is a relatively acceptable way to avoid feeling bad about purchasing unethical products.

The authors note that willfully ignorant memory may lead consumers to buy fewer ethically made products—partly because they don’t remember which ones are unethical, and partly because they forget how many unethical purchases they have made in the past, so they feel they have a license to purchase them in the present.

The authors recommend that companies add reminder messages on packaging and in marketing materials about ethical practices, so that consumers who care about ethical purchases can make the best choices.

“That’s Not How I Remember It: Willfully Ignorant Memory for Ethical Product Attribute Information” was published online December 8, 2017, in the Journal of Consumer Research.