Pathogens and Consumers’ Concern with Moral Purity

Hingston, Sean | $31,434

Ontario Ryerson University 2021 SSHRC

Extant research shows that a number of products relevant to the wellbeing of both individuals and society at large have been subject to extreme distrust, hindered adoption, and moral outrage. For example, while vaccines are one of the most important advancements in the history of public health, vaccine opposition and hesitancy have been emerging trends despite their safety and efficacy. Similarly, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) represent an important innovation given that they can make food more nutritious, reduce pesticide use, and enhance global food security. Nevertheless, consumer aversion to GMOs is a significant challenge. Distinct as these two products may seem, there is evidence that consumer aversion toward them may be rooted in moral reasoning and concerns with moral purity in particular.

Broadly, moral purity is concerned with keeping the body and soul free from physical and symbolic contaminants. As such, it is associated with disapproval of behaviors and objects that seem disgusting or unnatural. Perhaps not surprisingly then, because vaccines and GMOs are often viewed as violating the natural order and/or containing contaminants, research has linked moral purity to both vaccine hesitancy and negative attitudes toward GMOs. Given the important benefits that these products afford, it is critical to understand the situational and individual factors that underlie the aversion that ultimately impedes their adoption. In the proposed research, we will investigate how the combined effect of pathogen threat (like that posed by the ongoing COVID‑19 pandemic) and childhood socioeconomic status impacts the aversion to products commonly viewed as being morally impure.

This work will make a number of contributions. First, this research will add to our understanding of how pathogen threat affects consumer behaviora topic of great interest given the COVID‑19 pandemic. Indeed, even though COVID‑19 vaccines signal the end of the pandemic may be near, people are likely to remain highly sensitive to momentary pathogen threats (e.g., a child with a running nose, a stranger sneezing) for the foreseeable future, underscoring both the theoretical and practical significance of the proposed work. Second, this work will offer new insights into the role of the neglected domain of moral purity in marketing research and aid future investigations by providing a psychometrically valid measure of consumer preference for purity. Third, this research will broaden our understanding of how childhood experiences shape adult preferences and decision making. Lastly, we hope to identify psychological mechanisms behind several consequential consumer decisions, including the aversion to GMOs and vaccine hesitancy, and use this knowledge to propose novel interventions that could increase societal adoption of these life-enhancing technologies.

This research will also benefit academic literatures beyond the management field. Our novel theoretical insights will contribute to the psychology literature exploring the role of moral purity in shaping behaviour, as well as the growing body of work examining the impact of early childhood environment on behaviour in adulthood. This work will also aid public health and agricultural institutions by enabling the identification of segments of consumers that are more or less likely to reject products like vaccines and GMOs, which are both beneficial to individuals and also to society at large. Further, by exploring the underlying motivations behind the aversion to products often viewed as morally impure, this research can inform various stakeholder groups on the types of appeals that will be most effective for specific segments of consumers, informing future interventions.

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