Wealth and welfare: Divergent moral reactions to ethical consumer choices

Jenny G. Olson, Brent McFerran, Andrea Ketcham, Darren W. Dahl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


This article examines perceptions of low-income consumers receiving government assistance and the choices they make, showing that this group is viewed differently than those with more resources, even when making identical choices. A series of five experiments reveal that ethical purchases polarize moral judgments: whereas individuals receiving government assistance are perceived as less moral when choosing ethical (vs. conventional) products, income earners, particularly high-income individuals, are perceived as more moral for making the identical choice. Price is a central component of this effect because equating the cost of ethical and conventional goods provides those receiving government assistance some protection against harsh moral judgments when choosing ethically. Moreover, earning one's income drives perceptions of deservingness, or the right to spend as one desires. Those who receive assistance via taxpayer dollars are under greater scrutiny (frequently resulting in harsher moral judgments) by others. In addition to influencing perceptions of individual consumers, the results demonstrate that such attributions extend to groups who make ethical choices on others' behalf, and that these attributions have real monetary consequences for nonprofit organizations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberucv096
Pages (from-to)879-896
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Consumer Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Apr 19 2016


  • Attribution theory
  • Equity theory
  • Ethical consumption
  • Income
  • Moral psychology
  • Poverty
  • Prosocial behavior
  • Welfare

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Marketing
  • Business and International Management


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