A new study shows that higher prices may not stop the wealthy from buying unsustainable goods — instead, they may push those in the upper class to buy these products.
In a series of studies, researchers — including Karen Wintich, and Gerald I. Susman, professor of sustainability at Penn State, found that upper-class people were more likely to purchase unsustainable items such as individually packaged snacks when their price was higher. Further analysis found that this was because the higher price made them feel that they deserved the benefits of these products despite the cost to the environment.
In addition, the researchers said, this effect extended to other “socially costly” situations, such as beach travel that was experiencing environmental damage from too many tourists.
However, the team also found that when participants were encouraged to think that everyone is equal, this effect disappears. Wintech said the results – which were recently published in the newspaper Marketing Research JournalCan be used to help consumers make more sustainable choices.
“If we want to stop buying socially costly products, we need to focus on messaging strategies that encourage people to think more about universal human equality,” Winterrich said. “When we get people to think about equality, or to think more about the environment, then we can circumvent that effect and make them unable to accept these social costs just because they paid too much for the product.”
According to the researchers, previous surveys found that most people generally prefer products that offer social benefits, such as being “green” or good for the environment. However, when it comes time to actually make purchases, many customers still choose products that are convenient or perform better over those that are more sustainable or socially conscious.
Winterch and co-author Saerom Lee, an assistant professor of marketing and consumer studies at the University of Guelph who has a Ph.D. from Penn State, were curious about why people keep buying these products, especially when they come at a higher price.
For the paper, the researchers conducted several experiments, including experiments to determine and confirm the “price merit effect,” along with other experiments to see if there were strategies that could cancel out this effect. Across studies, participants indicated their social class, which researchers describe as an individual’s social standing compared to others based on factors such as income, education, and employment status.
The researchers found that while the higher social class felt it was justified to buy socially expensive products when they also cost more money, there was also a limit to what these participants found acceptable.
“It is possible that people have a chronic sense of entitlement, but our results focused on this specific price tendency to elicit the feeling that they are justified in their purchases,” Winterrich said. “We also don’t talk about really high social costs. If the cost is too high, like someone being physically harmed, we won’t see that effect.”
The researchers hypothesized that people who describe themselves as belonging to a lower social class may think more collectively, which may protect them from feeling entitled by paying a higher price.
“This may come from the experience of having to rely more on their community, and therefore of them being more socially minded and less likely to think about transactions,” Winterrich said. “They are more likely to realize the social cost and believe it is harming their community, and they are not willing to bear that cost, even if they pay more.”
The researchers said that additional studies could be done in the future on this effect, including how and why the effect occurs and what kind of messages can be used to overcome it.
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Saerom Lee et al, EXPRESS: The Price Entitlement Effect: When and Why High Price Allows Consumers to Purchase Socially Expensive Products, Marketing Research Journal (2022). doi: 10.1177/00222437221094301
Provided by Penn State University
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