Weapon 2: Shopping bags
Most of us like to think of ourselves as good people. Most of us also like the good image we have of ourselves to be shared by those around us. But when we convince ourselves or others of our inherent goodness, we become a little less, well, good.
In social psychology, this phenomenon is called ‘moral licensing’, and it arises via two separate but intertwining pathways. Let’s call the first of these the alibi pathway. Consider for a moment that we were thinking about eating a large lemon tart all at once. (Cough. Not a hypothetical. Cough). Given that our food choices are often viewed through a moral lens, if we were to eat the whole tart in a single sitting, we might very well think of ourselves as acting like an unhealthy, self-indulgent glutton.
Now imagine that just before considering whether to chow down on the lemon tart, we’d signed ourselves up for a gym membership. In this alternative scenario, we’d find it pretty hard to label ourselves as an unhealthy glutton for eating the tart. After all, haven’t we just taken steps to improve our health? The gym membership therefore provides us with an alibi for why we’re not unhealthy gluttons, and armed with this alibi, we remove the mental handbrake that may otherwise have stopped us from eating the whole tart.
While this might seem like a relatively trivial example, the same effect also applies to behaviours with more serious social implications. As one study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found, those who had been given an opportunity to demonstrate that they were not racially prejudiced were more likely to employ white people when given the opportunity to hire people from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
The alibi pathway isn’t the only way that moral licensing can emerge; there’s also what we’ll call the brownie points pathway. In this pathway, every good deed we do earns us brownie points, and after we’ve earned enough brownie points, we feel licensed to ‘withdraw’ some of them and ‘buy’ the right to do something of dubious moral worth. Like eating a whole lemon tart.
Both pathways can occur simultaneously, and both pathways present humans in a less than flattering light. But what does this have to do with shopping bags?
Shopping bags, particularly the disposable plastic variety, are a bit like relatives: suffocating and hard to get rid of. They’re bad for sea turtles and other marine creatures, which can starve to death after eating them. They’re bad for energy conservation efforts because of all the energy that goes into making a product we’ll use, at most, a handful of minutes. And they’re bad for the landscape, where they’ll persist for hundreds or even thousands of years before breaking down.
When we bring reusable shopping bags with us on our trips to the supermarket, it’s therefore likely that we’ll be feeling pretty pleased with ourselves for all the environmental harms we’ve averted. And it’s this feeling of moral self-worth that establishes the conditions necessary for moral licensing to emerge.
So what sort of moral licensing effects are we talking about? A recent study in the Journal of Marketing provides a good indication. In that study, people who brought their own shopping bags to the supermarket were 7.3% more likely to purchase an indulgent snack food than those who did not. And before we move on, let’s just consider that finding for a moment. Simply changing the type of bag we carry can influence whether we purchase a product or walk straight past it. To quote everyone’s favourite deceased crocodile wrangler: “crikey!”
Now, unless you’re an overweight executive at a pesticide company, it’s not all bad news; the same Journal of Marketing study also found that organic food purchases were 13.3% higher among those who had brought their own shopping bags. Why? To explain this effect, we must turn to a process called priming.
Priming is a special form of memory that occurs outside our awareness. Say, for example, we were holding a yellow saucer and sitting on a yellow stool in a yellow room. If we were suddenly asked to name a fruit, chances are that after criticising the nauseating décor, we’d say 'banana'. Or 'lemon'. Or 'pineapple'. See where I’m going here? The saucer, stool, and room will be grouped in our minds by the thing they share in common (the colour yellow), and this will activate other stereotypically yellow objects in our minds. Like sunflowers. And rubber duckies. And bananas. So when we’re asked to name a fruit, the word ‘banana’ is there waiting for us.
Returning to our organic food purchases, bringing reusable shopping bags with us when we go to the supermarket will activate environmental concepts in our minds. And when those environmental concepts are top of mind and we come across organic food in the aisles, well, you know how this story ends…
So let’s recap: bringing reusable shopping bags to the supermarket increases our likelihood of purchasing both indulgent snacks (via moral licensing) and organic goods (via priming). Manufacturers of organic chocolate rejoice!
One of the outcomes of research such as this is that it can present us with some uncomfortable choices. For example, what should we protect: the environment or our waistlines? However, before we go ditching the reusable shopping bags or buying larger jeans, it’s important to put these findings into a bit of perspective. Yes, while we may be a bit more likely to splash out on chocolate when we bring reusable shopping bags with us to the supermarket, if our chocolate purchases are already very low, a measly 7.3% increase won’t make much of an impact.
If chocolate is your catnip, however, there’s still some options available to you. For example, find a supermarket that charges for plastic bags. After all, it’s pretty hard to convince yourself that you’re a good person for bringing reusable shopping bags to the supermarket if doing so also saves you money.
Alternatively, have kids. According to the Journal of Marketing article mentioned earlier, those with kids who brought reusable shopping bags to the supermarket were less likely to purchase indulgent snacks. Perhaps they were looking for something stronger.