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The Cheater Detection Module: Avoiding Green Scepticism from Consumers

A green leaf with a heart cut out on a wooden background

Greenwashing, green skepticism and the risk of exaggerating environmental friendliness

A great deal of human endeavor, and in particular behaviors that have an interpersonal component, qualify as social exchanges.

Social exchanges reflect the human capacity to cooperate, ideally in ways that benefit all parties. Helping a friend or neighbour who may later help you, or purchasing something offered by a brand advertiser, both represent examples of such social exchanges.

Social exchanges tend to occur with a shared assumption of mutual trust, as well as an assumption that there is a shared social norm of reciprocity and an understanding that everyone will be better off if they honor such norms.

Extending a kindness to a complete stranger may minimally activate some notion of karmic investment. And in exchanges with known people, you anticipate that the current circumstance represents just one in a string of encounters, one where you develop expectations that those known others should treat you fairly in the future. That is, you expect those favors to be returned and those brand promises kept.

People are very quick to notice when such implicit norms are violated.

Game theorists and evolutionary biologists modeling economic scenarios have shown that productive social exchange tends to only arise when the participants have a sophisticated ability to readily detect when another party in the exchange will likely fail to honor an implied reciprocity norm – an ability to detect when the other party is “cheating”.

Psychologists inspired by this evolutionary demand have posited the existence of a cheater detection module in the brain that operates automatically, outside awareness, which anxiously looks for any information that might suggest the other party in an exchange may not in fact be honoring any implied social norms, and instead be a defector – someone seeking a short-term strategic advantage who has no intention of paying something back (or forward) in the future.

A large variety of behavioral experimentation, neuroimaging data and common-sense considerations suggests that something like a cheater detection module does, in fact, exist.

The existence of an automatic and easily activated cheater detection module has important strategic implications for advertisers focused on highlighting brand benefits that relate to issues of environmental sustainability. The widely used term “greenwashing”, as defined by Investopedia, refers to “the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound.”

The relationship between a consumer and a brand marketer is clearly a form of social exchange, and one in which trust and expectations of fairness can be crucial if the marketer expects to nudge a consumer into the category of a brand loyalist who has a propensity for repeat purchase.

Attempts to greenwash clearly violate the expected norms of social exchange. And brands engaging in it, whether deliberately or inadvertently, are at high risk for triggering the imputed cheater detection module in the brain. It is then not surprising that studies that have attempted to identify potential barriers to more sustainable consumption routinely identify consumer distrust of green product claims as a key factor in undermining the appeal of products that are marketed sustainable.

Similarly, empirical research on the factors which contribute to the formation of purchase intent for green products has identified a growing trend towards a generalized “green scepticism” that adversely impacts the development of such intentions.

Similar to climate change scepticism, green scepticism is frequently described as a form of motivated reasoning by which consumers display heightened suspicion of marketing claims made about purportedly environmentally-friendly products relative to product claims that relate more to product performance issues.

Recent research on this topic has found that strongly worded or unrealistic claims made when communicating the environmental benefits of green products can result in consumers becoming mistrustful and wary in response, yielding more cognitive processing and mental counter-arguing of those claims.

This type of conscious consideration of marketing claims can negatively impact attitudes towards brands and products, especially among more knowledgeable consumers. Products associated with strong or actually deceptive green claims have been found to be rated as less attractive than otherwise comparable alternatives, and in some cases have been noted to increase negative “word of mouth” in peer-to-peer consumer communications.

Given these challenges, how should marketers promote the environmental benefits of their products without activating the Cheater Detection Module and eliciting green scepticism?

Fortunately, they have a clear path forward.

First, they need to consciously avoid greenwashing language in their communications. Consumers will rapidly detect it, and once they do it will undermine their trust in your brand. And once that happens it will likely result in a shift in their attitude towards both the brand and the parent company. And then they might well share that scepticism with their social network.

Second, if you’re selling a product with real and verifiable sustainability benefits, you nonetheless might want to soft-sell those benefits. More vaguely communicated green product claims appear less likely to increase perceived greenwashing on the part of consumers. And the conveyance of green bona fides in a more contextual and indirect fashion (such as the inclusion of nature imagery in marketing communications or packaging) can even implicitly prime positive affective responses to a product. 

And lastly, instead of deceiving, build trust and rely on objective verification. Advertising or packaging that reinforces sustainability through the use of well-known and trusted third-party eco-labeling can increase a brand’s association with sustainability with less risk of triggering green scepticism and mental counter-arguing.

Brands should also support educational efforts to promote the certifying bodies and explain the certifications to consumers. A preponderance of evidence suggests that - when understood by consumers - such certifications can provide a simple method to convey the greenness of products without immediately eliciting a green scepticism response.