Jonathan Z. Berman
Research Interests: judgment and decision making, moral consumer choice, consumer financial decision making
Jonathan is currently a 5th year PhD student in the Marketing Department. Jonathan's primary research interestes include judgment and decision making, moral consumer choice, and consumer financial decision making. Prior to joining the program, Jonathan received a Masters in Decisions Sciences from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, and a Bachelors in Economics from Northwestern University. Below you can find an overview of his dissertation.
Dissertation Title: Moralized Consumer Choice
Chair: Deborah Small
In my dissertation I examine how the presence of moral conflict influences consumer decision making processes and consumer welfare. Much research in consumer decision making focuses on the internal conflict that people feel when choosing between alternatives. However, the nature of the conflict can take many forms. For instance, consider the decision between purchasing a less attractive, fuel efficient car versus purchasing a very attractive car with poor gas mileage. For some, this choice represents a purely economic decision for which a consumer must make tradeoffs between two important attributes. However, for those that feel a moral obligation to reduce carbon emissions, choosing the gas guzzler is not just financially imprudent, but it is immoral too. Yet it remains unclear whether moral choice conflict is fundamentally different from other forms of choice conflict and how this affects consumers.
In my first essay, “Self-Interest without Selfishness: The Hedonic Benefit of Imposed Self-Interest” (job market paper, Psychological Science, 2012) I examine the conflict consumers experience when faced with the decision between a self-interested and a prosocial option, and how this affects consumer happiness. Prosocial options are increasingly common in the marketplace, such as “one-for-one” products (e.g., Tom’s Shoes), eco-friendly home supplies (e.g., Seventh Generation), or even direct donation solicitation at the checkout. I show how the choice between a prosocial and a self-interested option can present a “lose-lose” situation for consumers. In particular, if a consumer selects an option of self-interest, he may feel guilt or self-reproach for prioritizing himself above others. However, if a consumer selects a prosocial option, he fails to reap the benefits inherit in self-interest. In a series of controlled experiments I demonstrate that imposing self-interest (a reward) leads to greater happiness than choosing between self-interest and a prosocial option (a charity donation). By removing agency, individuals can enjoy the pleasure inherent in self-interest without feeling selfish. I further explore the cues and contexts that signal to consumers that their everyday consumer behavior is selfish, and I present implications for managers in their decision to offer prosocial options to customers.
In my second essay, “Judgments of Virtue in Consumer Behavior” (under review, Journal of Consumer Research) I investigate more deeply what makes moral choice conflict unique from other forms of choice conflict. In recent years, consumer research on intertemporal choice has focused extensively on how individuals make decisions in the face of temptation. Further, the language of temptation is thick with moral connotations: vices and “wants” are hedonic options that benefit the present self, whereas virtues and “shoulds” are prudent options that benefit a future self. Yet theories of morality center on helping or harming others, and would not consider many intertemporal choice decisions to be moral. For example, people often talk about eating healthy and exercising as being virtuous (and their antitheses as being sinful) even though these decisions do not have direct consequences for others, unlike decisions to steal money or help those in need. In this essay, I explore the determinants of virtue in consumer behavior, and show that different aspects of virtue are relevant across intertemporal (i.e., present self/future self) and moral (i.e., self/other) decisions. For intertemporal decisions, willpower determines judgments of virtue: a person who resists temptation is seen as more virtuous than someone who does not feel tempted by a vice. However, for moral decisions, purity determines judgments of virtue: a person who resists temptation is seen as less virtuous than a person who does not feel tempted by a vice. I further show that thinking about past failures of purity increases intentions to act morally, whereas thinking about past self-control failures increases intentions to help the self.
In my third essay, “Moralization in the Marketplace” (in preparation) I provide a theoretical framework for understanding how the presence of moral concerns affects consumer decision making processes and consumer welfare. I begin by providing an overview of current theories of moral decision making, with emphasis on (1) how market exchange relationships serve to amoralize consumer choice and (2) how institutions, government regulation, and sacred values place boundaries on what morally laden actions are permissible in market exchange. I then discuss when moral considerations arise in the marketplace, and how consumers respond to these concerns. In doing so I draw upon research in decision making that examines the role of context effects in influencing choice processes. I examine the signals (e.g., choice sets, environmental cues, framing effects, etc.) that can indicate the presence of moral considerations in choice and how these signals subsequently affect consumer decision making and consumer welfare. Finally, I discuss the role of key variables that influence whether consumers will react to context effects regarding moral choice. I conclude by presenting challenges and future directions for researchers interested in studying moral choice conflict.