Despite the many lapses in ethical behavior that have attracted widespread attention in recent years, little is known about the cognitive processes that shape people's (un)ethical behavior and expectations of when it will occur. This lack of understanding exists despite substantial research on this topic within marketing. One factor that has contributed to this state of affairs is that most of the relevant investigations have focused simply on the practical implications and applications of ethics in marketing. Limited attention has focused on theory-driven inquiry. This research offers an initial attempt to fill this void. I do so by drawing on a corpus of work concerning both psychological distance and construal level theory (Liberman and Trope 2008). Psychological distance refers to the gap that often exists in time, space, familiarity, or likelihood that separates an event or object from the direct and personally experienced reality of the here and now. Moreover, variations in psychological distance have been found to affect people's construal level, which refers to the level of abstraction at which people think about and mentally represent an event in memory (Trope, Liberman and Wakslak 2007). Increases in an event's psychological distance (e.g., an event will happen in the more distant future or to a person other than oneself) prompts individuals to think about an event in a more abstract, less detailed manner, while decreases in psychological distance (e.g., an event occurs right now or to the self) elicit thoughts about the event in a more concrete or specific manner. Social distance, a variable that I examine and one that captures the familiarity dimension of psychological distance, would seem to be of importance in ethical situations for at least two reasons. First, ethical issues generally emerge in social contexts (i.e., ones involving people), making it likely that variation in social distance could be germane in ethical situations. Second, and more critically, because psychological distance regards the self in the here and now as its lowest endpoint or anchor, assessing one's own (as opposed to any other person's) behavior should stimulate an exceptionally concrete representation of the situation. Importantly, investigations into the effects produced by variations in psychological distance have demonstrated that adoption of a high construal level (i.e., thinking about an event more abstractly) prompts people to place greater priority on the desirability of pertinent end-states or goals. In contrast, adoption of a low construal level (i.e., thinking about an event more concretely) leads people to place higher priority on the feasibility and means used to achieve the end-state or goal. I found these observations about the effect of construal level on people's priorities striking when applied to ethical contexts because in such contexts people aspire to achieve a desirable end-state or higher level goal by employing a means that is unethical. The theory that underlies my hypotheses integrates the preceding two notions, namely, (a) a high (low) construal level increases the relative importance assigned to desirability (feasibility) aspects of ethics-related situations, and (b) a focus on desirability aspects encourages unethical behavior by fostering a desire to attain end-states/goals irrespective of ethical considerations, yet a focus on feasibility/means promotes more ethical behavior by heightening the salience of unethical actions. Combining the aforementioned premises and using extant knowledge of factors that influence psychological distance, I derived the following hypotheses. When individuals consider the behavior of an unknown (distal) person and thereby adopt a relatively high construal level, they should anticipate that this person will engage in unethical behavior when the event's psychological distance is greater (i.e., because this further encourages reliance on a higher construal level). But when individuals consider the behavior of the self -- an individual that fosters adoption of an extremely low construal level -- they may anticipate that the self will largely eschew unethical behavior, irrespective of other less potent factors that alter construal level by varying the psychological distance of the event. The first two experiments found support for this hypothesis in nine different ethical scenarios that varied construal level in a number of ways. In both experiments, construal level was manipulated by altering the focal actor (i.e., social distance: the self or an unknown other). In experiment 1, it was also manipulated through the temporal distance (i.e., close vs. far distance) of the event; in experiment 2 changes in temporal distance were replaced by a fluency manipulation that varied a novel dimension of psychological distance (see Alter and Oppenheimer 2008). In both experiments a significant two-way interaction revealed that for an unknown other, a higher construal level (i.e., more temporal distance or reduced reading fluency) increased the expectation of unethical behavior, but expectations that the self would behave unethically were low regardless of variation in the event's temporal distance or fluency. Importantly, a number of measures were included in the first two studies that addressed a potential rival explanation for my findings. Specifically, participants who were asked to anticipate their own behavior may have reported that they would behave quite ethically not because the self invoked a very low construal level as I predicted, but instead because consideration of the self stimulated their desire to present themselves favorably either to themselves or other people. In other words, self presentation concerns might have produced the outcomes that were observed in the self as actor condition. I investigated such possible self presentation concerns in assorted ways. However, analyses of these self presentation variables failed to reduce the significance of the interaction of the two instantiations of construal level (i.e., social distance and either temporal or metacognitive distance) that I observed in my studies. Thus, there was little support for the view that my findings could be explained by self presentation concerns. Experiment 3 sought evidence of the mechanisms that underlie the preceding effects. Consistent with my theorizing, analyses of mediated moderation and mediation found that together, desirability and feasibility related thoughts accounted for the effects of the social distance and construal level on participants' expectations of unethical behavior. In particular, while variation in construal level significantly influenced the number of desirability related thoughts that participants produced when they considered the behavior that an unknown other person would enact, this relationship was absent when participants anticipated how they themselves would behave. However, when participants considered how they themselves would behave, feasibility related thoughts were significantly elevated, especially when individuals relied on a low construal level. This increase in feasibility related thoughts mitigated the influence of desirability related thoughts. As a result, the heightened feasibility related thoughts prompted participants to anticipate that, irrespective of their construal level, they would behave ethically in response to the dilemma. The final two experiments addressed an important issue by extending my research into an investigation of real (i.e., not hypothetical) behavior. Specifically, these final two studies established that a key factor that distinguishes between hypothetical situations (like those used in my initial three studies) and real ones (like those employed in studies 4 and 5) is whether individuals explicitly envision and attend to themselves as the actor, or instead their thoughts about the self as actor fade into the periphery as other more pressing considerations command more attention (i.e., considerations such as comprehension of the task, the stimuli that are present, their goals, etc.). When the self is highly salient and thus people direct explicit attention to oneself (i.e., an individual considers a hypothetical scenario with the self as the actor, or the salience of the self is otherwise heightened as in study 5), psychological distance is greatly diminished, and thoughts about feasibility related matters magnify substantially. In situations of this sort, variation in construal level is apt to be overpowered, rendering it too weak to exert an appreciable influence; instead individuals are likely to dwell on feasibility considerations, which motivate them to behave quite honestly. In contrast, when attentiveness to the self is low, the imbalance just described should be absent. Hence, in situations of this type, the impact of construal level is likely to be felt. Indeed, study 5 bore out the preceding logic, revealing that variation in construal level predictably affected how honorably individuals behaved when the salience of the self was low, but it had no effect when salience of the self was high. Together, the results from all five studies I report provide converging support for the effects of construal level on ethical behavior. In addition, they shed light on the mediating roles that the desirability and feasibility of events play in producing this effect.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. June 2013. Major: Business Administration. Advisor: Joan Meyers-Levy. 1 computer file (PDF); xv, 166 pages.
The Effect of Construal Level on Consumers' Anticipated (Un)Ethical Behavior.
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