Class divide: Wealthy people feel ‘entitled’ to buy expensive, unsustainable goods

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Unsustainable goods, such as individually packaged snacks, are becoming pricier and pricier these days in an attempt to encourage shoppers to go with more environmentally friendly options. Interestingly, however, researchers from Penn State say this approach can actually backfire when it comes to especially wealthy people.

Why? Study authors discovered that higher prices make the wealthy feel entitled to the benefits of these products despite any environmental costs. The research found that upper-class people were more likely to buy unsustainable goods if the items came with a lofty price tag.

These findings apply to more than just grocery shopping. The wealthy were also more likely to ignore “socially costly” situations such as frequenting a beach experiencing environmental damage caused by too many tourists.

However, the team did uncover a fairly easy way to remedy this bias. Penn State researchers say that when they reminded wealthy participants that “everyone is equal,” this tendency largely went away. All in all, researchers think their work should serve as a guide to help consumers make more sustainable shopping decisions.

“If we want to turn off the purchase of socially costly products, then we need to focus on messaging strategies that encourage people to think more about the overall equality of human beings,” says Karen Winterich, Gerald I. Susman Professor in Sustainability at Penn State, in a university release. “When we prompt people to think about equality, or to think more about the environment, then we can circumvent this effect and make them not as likely to accept these social costs just because they paid a high price for the product.”

Can people develop a ‘chronic sense of entitlement’?

Generally speaking, most polls find that people prefer goods that offer some environmental or social benefit. Of course, once it comes time to actually make a purchase, many shoppers tend to fall back on products that are more convenient or perform better than the more sustainable option.

The research team set out to investigate why people continue to purchase such products, especially when it often means paying more.

The study featured several experiments which established and confirmed this so-called “price entitlement effect.” Researchers conducted additional experiments centered on establishing effective strategies for negating the effect. Across all of the experiments, subjects self-reported their social class.

According to the research team, one’s social class refers an individual’s social position in comparison to others based on various factors including income, education, and career status.

The results suggest that higher social class people feel quite justified buying expensive, socially irresponsible products – up to a certain point.

“It’s possible for people to have a chronic sense of entitlement, but our findings were focused on this specific tendency for price to trigger a feeling of being justified in their purchases,” Prof. Winterich explains. “We’re also not talking about really severe social costs. If the cost would be very high, like someone being physically harmed, we wouldn’t see this effect.”

‘Lower class’ people more likely to band together

Study authors speculate that people who consider themselves as “lower class” may think in more communal terms than their wealthier peers.

“This might come from the experience of having to rely more on their community, and therefore being more communal-minded and less likely to think transactionally,” Prof. Winterich concludes. “They are more likely to recognize the social cost and think of it as hurting their community, and they’re not willing to incur that cost, even if they pay more.”

The study is published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

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