Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Consumer purchase honesty and dishonesty

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Consumer purchase honesty and dishonesty:
What motivates consumers to behave honestly or dishonestly when purchasing goods or services?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you ever been tempted to not scan all the items in your basket when going through the supermarket self-checkout? Maybe you have 3 packets of chips but only scanned 2. How would you feel once you left the shop?

In this chapter we will discuss:

  • What we mean by honesty and dishonesty
  • The impact of consumer dishonesty on business and the Australian economy
  • How do emotions such as guilt and embarrassment interact with honesty
  • How does motivation influence consumer honesty and dishonesty, with reference to self-concept theory, and;
  • How can we influence consumers to behave honestly

Honesty versus dishonesty[edit | edit source]

Honesty is the statement of truth and adherence to facts, with an expectation of fairness of conduct. This includes the ability to be trusted to not steal, cheat or lie (Cambridge English Dictionary, 2019; Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, 2019).

Honesty is valued highly in almost every society, yet we see many examples of dishonesty in consumer behaviour. For example, consumer dishonesty may occur when individuals purchase items of clothing with no intent of keeping these items, choosing to wear them whilst leaving the tags on before returning them to the store for a refund.

Why do we care if consumers are dishonest?[edit | edit source]

Retail crime statistics for NSW Australia of 2011

Consumer dishonesty is a particular concern for businesses, with the 2011 NSW Government Global Theft Barometer identifying that retail theft costs the Australian economy more $2 billion per annum, stating that this level of theft is being driven by consumer demand for low cost goods with less supervision from employees on the shop floor (NSW Government, 2011). This has led businesses to team up with police to combat shop-lifters who are taking advantage of their checkout systems (Overton P., et. al. 2016).

How do emotions such as guilt and embarrassment interact with honesty?[edit | edit source]

What impact does honesty and dishonesty have on the individual? In the case of dishonesty, one of the main emotional responses to it is guilt. Guilt is similar to shame, though lacks the negative intensity of shame. Guilt is the signal that our behaviour has caused harm, loss, or distress to another (Reeve, J., 2018 pg. 350). The level of guilt often depends the relationship between the two parties involved.

For example, you let me borrow your pen to write something down, but instead of returning it to you I put it in my pocket and keep it. This may cause me to feel guilty, particularly if I realised it was the only pen you had on you and you were about to go to a lecture and wanted to take notes. At which point I might run after you to give the pen back and apologise.

Guilt is often associated with empathy and while it can motivate individuals to act to remedy or make up for harm they may have caused in a specific instance, it is unlikely to encourage prosocial behaviour generally (Reeve, J., 2018 pg. 350). Research into feelings of guilt and consumer behaviour have found that guilt is not a deterrent to dishonest consumer behaviour, as for guilt to act as a deterrent there needs to be a level of high commitment between consumer and business (Steenhaut S. and Van Kenhove P. 2005).

An example how the different levels of commitment can influence behaviour can be seen in the different ways consumers interact with big multinational businesses and the local corner store. If you were given too much change at your local store, a place you regularly shop and chat to the store owner, it is more likely that you would point it out and return the extra money.

What motivates consumers to act honestly or dishonestly?[edit | edit source]

The rational economics model of behaviour states that people are dishonest because the cost-benefit analysis they undertake comes out in favour of acting dishonesty, ie they gain more than they lose. This view underlies much of the theory of crime and punishment and suggests that individuals ask themselves three questions — what do they stand to gain, what is the probability of being caught and what is the magnitude of the punishment if they are (Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D. 2008).

However, from a psychological perspective, a person’s decision to act honesty or dishonesty is also based on the internalised norms of society and values they hold.

One way to explain the motivation for consumers to act dishonestly or honestly incorporating both of these perspectives is using the theory of self-concept maintenance and how this is compared to potential profits from dishonest behaviour.

Self-concept theory[edit | edit source]

Self-concept theory is the mental representations of an individual’s self (Reeve, J. 2018. pg. 259). In relation honesty or dishonesty, the theory of self-concept states that in order to maintain their self-concept as an honest person the individual plays a balancing act weighing up the profit of dishonesty and their own understanding of their integrity, with inattention to moral standards and categorisation malleability (Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D. 2008). Categorisation malleability refers to the way people rationalise their actions. If we go back to the example above of putting a friend’s pen in our pocket, that may be rationalised by saying they are friend so actually I was just borrowing it. Whereas if you put something from a store in your pocket it may be harder to rationalise that it is not dishonest. This theory also poses that if you are not mindful of your moral standards and lack self-awareness you are less likely to see discrepancies between self-concept and dishonest behaviour.

Influence of culture and society[edit | edit source]

Culture and society have been found to be linked to intrinsic honesty. A study by Gächter, Schulz, & Gächter (2016) constructed from experiments spanning over 23 countries around the world found that norms for honesty are transmitted culturally through generations. They also found that societal structure, either collectivist or individualist, also plays a role in the way a society views rule violation which was found to be strongly linked to dishonesty. Additionally, they found that weaker societal institutions and cultural legacies that generate negative rule violation behaviour may not only negatively impact the economy, but could also harm the individual's intrinsic honesty. When dishonesty or cheating is prevalent in a society and often goes unpunished it is likely that members of that society will view some everyday instances of dishonesty as justifiable without impacting their self-concept of being honest. Economic systems, institutions, and the cultures of businesses may influence individual values and honesty, as experiencing frequent unfairness can also increase dishonesty (Gächter, Schulz, & Gächter, 2016).

Social control theory[edit | edit source]

One study looked at social-control theory, which claims that “social order is maintained when there is consensus within the society on values and beliefs of what constitutes right and wrong behaviour” (Dootson P., et. al. 2017). This was described as the "it’s wrong, don’t do it" classification. The results found that this type of deterrent was not effective if the consumer perceived the harm impacted an organisation and not an individual, or the harm was perceived to be low or insignificant (Dootson P., et. al. 2017).

For example, an individual may rationalise that their theft of a chocolate bar from Coles supermarket by failing to scan it at the self-checkout is insignificant to a huge commercial operation such as Coles, they also feel less guilty because they feel like they are stealing from a computer or robot and not a real sales person.

Influence of consumerism[edit | edit source]

Particular attitudes have been linked to dishonesty, with a study by Fullerton and Punj (2004) finding that marketing strategies promoting consumerism and consumption of goods may have unforeseen repercussions, and be linked to consumer dishonesty in exchange settings.

Measuring dishonesty[edit | edit source]

An index to measure levels of ‘prevalence to rule violation’ was created based on data from 2003 on a country-level basis, looking at levels of corruption, tax evasion, and fraudulent politics (Gächter, S., Schulz, J., & Gächter, S. 2016). The researchers then used this measure to look at individual intrinsic honesty showing that levels were higher in countries with a low index score for prevalence to rule violation.  This study provides a useful way of measuring intrinsic honesty that will be helpful for further research into the motivations of consumers to be honest or dishonest.

As you see, there are a number of factors that influence why consumers may be honest or dishonest, from internal motivations in terms of the emotions they feel, balancing act of maintaining of self-concept and the influence of sociality norms.

How can we influence consumers to behave honestly?[edit | edit source]

By understanding what motivates consumer honesty and how motivation can be influenced by learning businesses and governments can tackle the issue of consumer dishonesty.

Theories of learnt motivation[edit | edit source]

B. F. Skinner's operant conditioning chamber, also known as Skinner's box

The most recognised form of punishment and reward learning in a research setting is that of Pavlov’s and Skinners’ studies into classical and operant conditioning respectively. Classical conditioning was first conceptualised by Ivan Pavlov in 1927 in his publication of Conditioned Reflexes. The most famous example of classical conditioning in terms of the experiments conducted by Pavlov, would be his dog salivation experiment, through which he demonstrated that a response can be trained to a conditional stimulus (Chance, P. 2014. pg. 59). Operant conditioning is the other form of learning that involves punishment and reward, it was most famously conceptualised by B.F. Skinner who got the initial idea from E. L. Thorndike. The publication of The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis (1938) by B. F. Skinner brought about the most identifiable experiment attributed to operant conditioning, a study with rats that is commonly called the Skinners box. The results of this research study identified four types of operant conditioning, two that strengthened a behaviour, which are negative and positive reinforcement, and two that weaken a behaviour, which are positive and negative punishment (Chance, P. 2014). More current research has shown that the manipulation of which order punishment or reward occurs also helps to determine the strength of the conditioned behaviour (Ahmed A. Moustafa, et. al. 2015). As well as the effects of repeated reward and punishment (Keating, J., & Brock, T. 1976), another theory that looks at learnt behaviour is observational learning, which was first considered by E.L Thorndike. Observational learning has been defined as learning through observing events and their consequences (Chance, P. 2014 pg 281). There are two types of observational learning, social and asocial, the difference between them is that social observational learning is observational learning in the more traditional sense of observing the behaviour of another individual, while asocial observational learning is “learning from observed events in the absence of a model” (Chance, P. 2014 pg. 286).

How learnt motivation can be used to promote consumer honesty[edit | edit source]

Child working on activity in library

These learning theories help to explain consumer honesty or dishonesty as a learnt behaviour and provide possible explanations for the ways in which we may act and also change how we act in certain situations. For example, we may be motivated to behave dishonestly by not paying for an item at the checkout, however if we have seen another customer getting caught doing the same thing we may learn not to behave this way, or we may have even been caught ourselves and been punished through the legal system, which may also negatively reinforce that behaviour.

Therefore, we can see learning principles can be effective in manipulating human behaviour and they can be used to teach the consumer positive or negative behaviours. However there are also ethical issues that need to be considered before businesses attempt positive or negative operant conditioning techniques to encourage consumer honesty. This one of the reasons why punishments are managed through the justice system.

Therefore, observational learning is more likely to be a useful technique and fits with the motivation theories discussed above that suggest weighing up the likelihood of being caught and consequence play an important part in deciding how to act. The use of observational learning has been shown to be very effective on young children, which suggests that if we want to promote positive consumer behaviour, we should be teaching it to the younger generations (Martin A., and Juan Carlos O. 2001). The research done by Martin A., and Juan Carlos O. (2001) in the positive application of teaching children about money summed up by saying, that the earlier that the children are taught about money management the better their understanding in the future.

So going back to our example of a person failing to scan a chocolate bar at the self-checkout in a supermarket, learning principles could be used to demonstrate the impact each small theft has cumulatively, the impact on individual store staff to help customers empathise with them, the security measures in place that make it more likely they will get caught and the potential consequences if they do.

Test your knowledge[edit | edit source]

When is the best time to teach consumer etiquette?

As a child
As an adult
When it is needed

Does guilt make an individual more likely to perform positive consumer behaviour? It:

will, but only when it is directed to an individual who has been harmed
will, but only if a large company is the one harmed
won't, if the harm caused is seen to be insignificant or low in cost
never promotes positive consumer behaviour

Does dishonest consumer behaviour have an impact on the overall economy of Australia?


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Dishonesty by consumers has a significant impact on businesses and the Australian economy. Individual feelings of guilt and the desire to maintain a socially desirable self-concept of being honest seem to provide some deterrence for acting dishonestly within limitations. However, how much an individual identifies with the person or business impacted by the dishonesty, and societal and cultural norms also play a role in determining the level of consumer honesty.

There are learning principles that can be used to encourage consumer honesty, including operant and classical conditioning, and observational learning, though these methods have been shown to have the greatest effect on future consumer decisions if they were introduced to children from a young age.

See also[edit | edit source]

Consumer emotion measurement - Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Consumer emotion measurement

Honesty motivation - Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Honesty motivation

Criminal recidivism prevention motivation - Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Criminal recidivism prevention motivation

Morality and emotion - Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Morality and emotion

References[edit | edit source]

meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary. (2019). Retrieved 20 October 2019, from
  • Honesty. (2019). In Merriam-Webster's online dictionary. Retrieved from:
  • Keating, J., & Brock, T. (1976). The effects of prior reward and punishment on subsequent reward and punishment: Guilt versus consistency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(3), 327–333.
  • Martin A., and Juan Carlos O. (2001). Teaching children about money: Applications of social learning and cognitive learning developmental theories. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences; 93(2), 26-29. ProQuest Central
  • Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D. (2008). The dishonesty of honest people: a theory of self-concept maintenance. (Report). Journal of Marketing Research, 45(6), 633–644.
  • Moustafa A., Gluck M., Herzallah M., & Myers C. (2015). The influence of trial order on learning from reward versus punishment in a probabilistic categorization task: Experimental and computational analyses. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9(JULY), 153.
  • NSW Government. (2011). An overview of retail crime in Australia [PDF] (1st ed.). Retrieved from
  • Overton P., Clancey D., Chapman M., Lamb D., & Alpins M. (2016). Supermarket giant Coles is fed up with light-fingered shoppers taking advantage of its self-service checkouts. RMIT Publishing, Melbourne (Vic.).
  • Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Steenhaut S. and Van Kenhove P. (2005). Relationship Commitment and Ethical Consumer Behaviour in a Retail Setting: The Case of Receiving Too Much Change at the Checkout. Journal of Business Ethics; 56, 335-353.

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