Explaining the Attitude-Behaviour Gap: why consumers say one thing but do another

  • 28 July 2016
Couple shopping courtesy of Akhenaton Images-shutterstock

Many organisations are grappling with the so called ‘attitude-behaviour gap’ characterised by consumers who say they are concerned about ethical issues but do not necessarily express them in their market behaviour. In this guest blog – part of a short series of posts on ethical consumerism – explanations are offered across three different levels: individual consumers, their relations with significant others and social-economic-cultural structures.

At the level of the individual, some have argued that a desire to present oneself favourably in surveys reveals a mythical ethical consumer. We suggest that many attitudes expressed in surveys are representative of concerns, but that various intermediating factors moderate the consumers’ ability or will to enact their intentions.

Information overload ….. or underload

If we think about the seemingly endless demands to…..

Reduce, reuse, recycle (in the correct bins), buy fair trade, organic, don’t eat meat, avoid products from certain countries, boycott specific brands, use less energy, use green energy, don’t drive a car, don’t fly, buy local, etc., etc.,

…..the question becomes how do people manage to be ethical consumers?

Consumers can experience too much/too little information, it may be conflicting or complex and there may be uncertainty as to what action to take and the effectiveness of that action.

There may also be a lack of ‘ethical’ choices (despite repeated exposés of poor factory conditions, consider avoiding sweatshop clothing on the high street).

Thus, complex interrelationships between purposes and actions of ethical consumption contemplated across all consumption decisions and consideration of impacts is overwhelming.

Social demands placed on consumers

At the relational level, individuals can feel that their actions are being constrained by others – those close to you may not share your ethical concerns or embrace such choices, yet our choices and consumption decisions are negotiated and experienced socially.

And various studies have illustrated that whereas most consumption tends to be viewed as an individual, selfish activity, in fact the majority of buying decisions are done with others in mind. That might be caring for your children’s nutrition, buying a gift for a loved one or even seeking approval from one’s peer group by wearing the ‘correct’ clothing.

Consumption, therefore, is not just a trade-off between egoistic and altruistic concerns. Instead, it should better be viewed as the arena of satisfying competing demands by oneself, intimate and distant others. 

The market's limitations

Structurally, consumers are constrained in terms of market choices.

Individuals do not have equal access to market choices or actionable information and many choices are controlled by other powerful actors. This makes individual responsibility to bring about change through consumption choices clearly problematic.

While consumers may want to feel that their ‘ethical’ purchases are making a difference e.g. when buying fair trade, they are making the lives of farmers, their families and communities better, in reality a prolificacy of extended and complex supply chains distance consumer-producer relationships.

In such interactions, consumers are frequently only able to infer and hope that their purchases are addressing their ethical concerns. Consequently, outcomes of consumption and non-consumption choices are possible, but uncertain.

Furthermore, in focusing on the consumer, we pay less emphasis to the significant structural elements that shape and constrain consumption choices, such as the role of powerful retailers, producers and brands.

Systemic contradictions within contemporary capitalism

Taken-for-granted structures that naturalise particular logics and practices, obscure alternative possibilities.

Rather than a focus on the attitude-behaviour gap in ethical consumption discussed in terms of the individualised flaws and internal moral shortcomings of consumers, it may be more pertinent to consider this gap as the expression of the systemic contradictions of contemporary capitalism.

For many, neoliberalism is very much focused on shifting responsibility away from traditional top-down institutions such as the state (e.g. in regulating labour practices) and businesses (e.g. embedding CSR agendas) to the individual consumer citizen. This may not only be ineffectual but also politically undesirable.

Consumers can clearly illustrate demand and NGOs can incite that demand through campaigning, as part of collectively organised activities to rearticulate everyday consumption. However, as we have shown, there is a broader dimension concerned with the language, ideology and structures that surround us, that has to be taken into account.

If you are interested in more discussion of this and other issues in ethical consumption please see our seminar series and web resources, our recently published book, or follow us on twitter under @EthicsConsump


[i] The contributors to this blog are Deirdre Shaw, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Research, University of Glasgow; Andreas Chatzidakis, Senior Lecturer, Royal Holloway University London; Helen Goworek, Lecturer in Creative Marketing, University of Leicester; and Michal Carrington, Lecturer in Marketing, University of Melbourne


ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.