The Consumers’ Emotional Dog Learns to Persuade Its Rational Tail: Toward a Social Intuitionist Framework of Ethical Consumption

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Literature on consumers’ ethical decision making is rooted in a rationalist perspective that emphasizes the role of moral reasoning. However, the view of ethical consumption as a thorough rational and conscious process fails to capture important elements of human cognition, such as emotions and intuitions. Based on moral psychology and microsociology, this paper proposes a holistic and integrated framework showing how emotive and intuitive information processing may foster ethical consumption at individual and social levels. The model builds on social intuitionism to show how consumers’ a priori affect-laden intuitive moral judgments impact their post hoc reflective moral reasoning. Symbolic interactionism is used to interpret consumers as interdependent and socially embedded agents that self-construct their social identity through interactions with other consumers. The proposed social intuitionist framework of consumers’ ethical decision making shows that other-oriented moral emotions—such as elevation, gratitude, and empathy—interact with persuasion and social influence in ethical consumption. Consequently, moral emotions and intuition drive interpersonal persuasion among ethical consumers. Theoretical propositions and implications for consumer ethics theory and practice are discussed.

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  1. 1.

    Business ethics and management scholars provide unclear and scattered definitions of emotion and intuition. Gaudine and Thorne (2001, p. 176) state that the boundaries among emotions, moods, and affective personality traits are “unsharp,” but emotions are more intense, shorter-lasting, and related to the environment. However, the Oxford English Dictionary provides one of the most acknowledged definitions of emotion as a “strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others” and an “instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge” ( Hence, the “social” relationship and the non-rational intuitive components clearly emerge. Dane and Pratt (2007, p. 34) argue that intuition has many associated terms, including “gut feelings…hunches…and mystical insights.” For our purposes, the most significant definition is “thoughts and preferences that come to mind quickly and without much reflection” (Kahneman 2003, p. 697) and “a cognitive conclusion based on . . . previous experiences and emotional inputs” (Burke and Miller 1999, p. 92). Thus intuition is quick, effortless, non-rational, and directly related to emotions (Haidt 2001, 2003).

  2. 2.

    Robert B. Cialdini, one of the most influential psychologists on the topic, has widely studied persuasive mechanisms in social interactions (Cialdini 2001). Among the main principles explaining persuasion and the resulting social influence, reciprocity (Zollo et al. 2017b), liking (Cialdini 2001), and social consensus (Jones 1991) are most relevant to our work.

  3. 3.

    Ethical consumers are interpreted as a specific group (Shaw and Clark 1999), a social movement with group consciousness (Cherrier 2007) valuing environmental, wildlife, and ethical issues and disdaining oppressive, warring regimes (Shaw et al. 2006). Accordingly, scholars used self-construal theory to define ethical consumers as strongly interdependent and defined through their relationship with a social group (He et al. 2019; Kim and Johnson 2013). Social identity theorists conceptualized a social group as “a number of individuals who have internalized the same social category membership as a component of their self concept” (Turner 1982, p. 36). Indeed, individuals with highly interdependent self-construal deeply value interconnectedness and are more motivated to fulfill obligations to their most primary interpersonal group relationships.

  4. 4.

    Moral intuition differs from heuristics, which are subconscious shortcuts that rely on past experiences for solving similar problems (Haidt 2001, 2005). Affect heuristics indicate automatic gut feelings that can be misleading for solving moral dilemmas because they often result from cultural prejudice rather than moral principle (Zajonc 1980). For example, when thinking about “abortion, euthanasia, cloning, or any other difficult issue” (Haidt 2005, p. 553), reliance on past experience or previous moral deliberations might deviate intuitive moral judgment. “The moral domain is a weird and treacherous world in which objects change their weights and rivers flow uphill. Or at very least, minds that worked in one way on non-moral problems suddenly start working differently when moral concerns are introduced” (Haidt 2005, p. 552). Hence, heuristics based on previous experiences might impact on moral intuition and affect-laden intuitive moral judgment, but moral intuition is primary for ethical decision making (Haidt 2001).

  5. 5.

    Empathy, which fits into the other-suffering category, has a dual nature depending on its specific sub-component as described in the following section. In fact, empathy has both an affective (System 1) and cognitive (System 2) component (Shamay-Tsoory et al. 2009; Smith 2006; Tangney et al. 2007a).

  6. 6.

    Building on social impact theory, Argo et al. (2005, p. 207) empirically demonstrated that both interactive and non-interactive social presence (i.e., “a mere presence”) can influence consumption behavior. Beyond physical presences or live interactions, individuals still have opportunities to mimic others’ behavior, such when they observe another customer shopping nearby (Tanner et al. 2008, p. 755), with impacts on their moral decisions. As a result, ethical consumers might seek belongingness and collective participation (Cherrier 2007) without being engaged with other consumers.

  7. 7.

    Social consensus is defined as “social agreement that a proposed act is evil (or good)” (Jones 1991, p. 375). That is, individuals are motivated to act morally and prosocially when their referent others favor the actions (Albert et al. 2015).

  8. 8.

    I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am” (Cooley 1902).

  9. 9.

    Attitude alignment theory indicates that “the perceived associations among a perceiver (p), another person (o), and an attitude object (x) tend to be consistent (or balanced), such that (a) if p likes o, p feels comfortable when p and o hold similar attitudes about x and (b) if p dislikes o, p feels comfortable when p and o hold different attitudes about x” (Davis and Rusbult, 2001, p. 66).

  10. 10.

    Although A’s moral reasoning is “produced and sent forth verbally” to express moral justifications (Haidt 2001, p.819), A might persuade B as a non-interactive social presence in the consumption setting (Argo et al., 2005, p.211). Hence, B might read, watch, or learn about A’s moral discussion and arguments with no direct interaction and still be affectively persuaded.

  11. 11.

    Link 8b is consistent with the notion of emotional intelligence, “the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (Salovey and Mayer 1989, p. 189) Hence, as shown in link 8b, A’s emotional processing will be “rationalized” by B’s moral awareness, leading to moral intent and ethical action (Chowdhury 2017a).


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Correspondence to Lamberto Zollo.

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Zollo, L. The Consumers’ Emotional Dog Learns to Persuade Its Rational Tail: Toward a Social Intuitionist Framework of Ethical Consumption. J Bus Ethics (2020) doi:10.1007/s10551-019-04420-4

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  • Consumer ethical decision making
  • Emotion
  • Ethical consumption
  • Intuition
  • Persuasion
  • Social influence