Punishing the Wrong and the Guiltless: An Investigation of Injustice-Inspired Consumer Deviance



Past research suggests that even “mainstream” consumers may repeatedly engage in a variety of deviant consumer behaviors, ranging from mild acts such as verbal abuse of company employees and not reporting billing mistakes to criminally punishable behavior such as price-switching and shoplifting (Tian and Keep 2002). But what marketplace experiences prompt consumers to engage in such deviance and what can explain its “epidemic” status in society (Berry and Seiders 2008)? Recent research has focused on dishonest behavior encouraged by an opportunity for financial gain (e.g., Mazar et al. 2008). I extend this area by exploring the impact of a given company’s wrongdoing on the likelihood of deviant consumer behavior toward not only the company that perpetrated the wrongdoing (i.e., “punishing the wrong”), but also the spillover effect on other companies that have not directly wronged an individual (i.e., “punishing the guiltless”). I argue that wrongdoing of marketplace entities may contribute to wider-spread consumer deviance than can be explained by simple retribution. Furthermore, I investigate the mechanisms underlying these effects and their role in preventing negative consequences to the consumer’s self-concept following deviant behavior.
In study 1, I show that when one company wrongs consumers, and an opportunity presents itself, wronged individuals are equally likely to punish the perpetrator of wrongdoing (i.e., “punishing the wrong”) and other companies (i.e., “punishing the guiltless”). In study 2, I replicate the results of study 1 in a different context and investigate the processes underlying these effects. Specifically, I find preliminary evidence to suggest that while consumers do not appear to construct justifications for deviance against the perpetrator of wrongdoing (because such actions are driven by a “hot” affective mechanism), they seem to re-construe punishing other companies as a moral deed of “restoring justice” (i.e., a “cool” cognitive mechanism) in a broader sense. Importantly, I also investigate the implications of injustice-inspired deviance to the consumer’s self-concept, suggesting that the mechanisms investigated in this research prevent negative updates to one’s self-concept following deviance. As such, consumers may be able to repeatedly engage in acts of deviance and think of themselves as good and moral. Finally, in studies 3 and 4, I identify and plan to test important boundary conditions that promise to diminish the negative consequences of companies’ wrongdoing.
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Dr. S. Puntoni