Factors informing perceptions and justifications of deviant consumer behaviour

Imagine you walk into a grocery store self-check out and you scan through your expensive organic tomatoes as regular tomatoes. Or, you’ve just got your bill at a restaurant and you don’t tell the waitress they haven’t charged you for the last bottle of wine you had. Do these sound acceptable – or justifiable – to you? Where do you draw the line?

Everybody will have a different view on these scenarios depending on their deviance threshold.

A deviance threshold is the point in which a person can no longer justify engaging in a behaviour that is either against the law, organisational policy, or violates the generally accepted norms of conduct, without thinking they are a bad person.

In our research, published in Journal of Marketing Management, we explore what influences where an individual draws the line – what informs their deviance threshold.

Our research found eight prominent factors that influence a consumer’s deviance threshold, and then linked these factors to justification techniques that consumers use to excuse their actions. These factors are:

  1. official classification of the behaviour (law / policy)
  2. perceived risk
  3. norms (prevalence)
  4. intent
  5. perceived outcomes (direction and degree of harm caused by the action)
  6. past experience as a victim of deviance
  7. perceived fairness, and
  8. moral identity.

While the law and organisational policies are in place to formally dictate what is right and wrong consumer behaviour, our study found consumers can use this as a baseline from which they can deviate. For instance, if a specific behaviour was perceived as wrong according to the law, yet there was no perceived risk of being caught, it signaled to the consumer that the behaviour was acceptable or at least justifiable. Low perceived risk is a problem as most consumer deviance goes undetected. Either the organisation doesn’t have the resources to detect and punish it, or it is very hard to detect (e.g. lying). In this study we contributed a new neutralisation technique to the field, ‘denial of punishment probability’, which captures the low perceived risk of being caught when performing a deviant act.

We also found consumers could look at how prevalent the behaviour is, which was connected to the normal practice justification of “everyone else is doing it”. Or, consumers could look to the perceived outcomes of their actions, specifically questioning will it cause harm, and if yes, who will it cause harm to? Harm was considered acceptable towards large organisations in comparison to small organisations, as the victim was less identifiable.

Behaviour that was intentionally deviant was considered more wrong than unintended deviance, as participants acknowledged ‘we all make mistakes’.

A consumer’s deviance threshold could also be influenced by the perceived fairness of the consumption. For instance, if poor service was provided, then not correcting the waitress for giving you extra change was considered as justifiable behaviour as opposed to unacceptable behaviour. Similar fairness arguments were made for constraints placed on the consumer’s consumption, such as not allowing access to TV shows, which results in illegal downloading.

Past experience as a victim of consumer deviance, either as a sales person or business owner, meant the consumer had a stricter, less tolerant deviance threshold. Similarly, participants who spoke of conflict between their inherent values of honesty and the deviant behaviour demonstrated a strong moral identity, which was also synonymous with a stricter, less tolerant deviance threshold.

Consumers use justifications to let them perform deviant consumer behaviours, without feeling too bad about it. When a consumer uses perceived fairness or prevalence to inform their perceptions of right and wrong, they can readily use the associated justifications, loosening their deviance threshold. A loosening of their deviance threshold allows the individual to perform the behaviour and still keep a positive view about them.

The practical implication of this research is that when consumers disagree on whether a behaviour is right or wrong, that makes it very difficult for organisations to police. Using a one-size-fits-all strategy for deterring deviance is limited. For instance, one common strategy appeals to the formal wrongness of an action i.e. “it’s wrong, don’t do it”, which is ineffective because the consumer can respond with: “actually I don’t think it is wrong,” or “I know it is wrong, but here is a justification for why I’m going to do it”. The second common strategy for deterring deviant consumer behaviour is appealing to the risk of the behaviour – “you’ll be fined $500 if you do X”. However, the low perceptions of risk associated with most deviant consumer behaviour makes deterrence strategies that appeal to the severity of the punishment ineffective if the consumer doesn’t think they will get caught, rendering the severity of the punishment irrelevant.

These findings suggest organisations should take a tailored approach to deterrence. Deterrence strategies need to move away from appealing to individuals to uphold the law, or stressing the severity of the punishment, and instead work to challenge the justifications commonly used to excuse consumer deviance. In future research, a number of these strategies aim to be tested.

If you are interested in this work, you may also be interested in the upcoming special issue on ‘The Dark Side of Marketing’ with guest editors Kate L. Daunt, Cardiff University, UK and Dominique A. Greer, Queensland University of Technology, Australia. See here for more information. Submissions due December 1, 2016.

Read the original research:  Dootson, P., Johnston, K.A., Beatson, A. & Lings, I. (2016). Where do consumers draw the line? Factors informing perceptions and justifications of deviant consumer behavior. Journal of Marketing Management, 32. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2015.1131734

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, unless otherwise stated. Third party materials remain the copyright of the original rightsholder.

Paula Dootson

Paula Dootson

Dr Paula Dootson, PhD, is a Research Fellow in the PwC Chair in Digital Economy at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Her research focuses on understanding and deterring deviant consumer behaviour across a number of domains. Paula’s research will provide organisations with more effective deterrence strategies to reduce instances of deviant consumer behaviour in the marketplace. Paula’s work has been published in the Journal of Marketing Management, International Journal of Bank Marketing, University of New South Wales Law Journal, and Advances in Consumer Research.

ORICD iD iconhttp://orcid.org/0000-0002-8020-8762

Kim Johnston

Kim Johnston

Dr Kim Johnston, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in public relations at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Dr Johnston’s research focuses on cultural knowledge as it relates to strategic communication, social impact, and engagement. She is currently editing the Handbook of Communication Engagement (Wiley). Her work has been published in a range of journals, including Journal of Change Management, Public Relations Review, and Journal of Public Relations Research. She is on the editorial board of the Journal of Public Relations Research and Corporate Communications: An International Journal.

ORICD iD iconhttp://orcid.org/0000-0002-6119-203X

Amanda Beatson

Amanda Beatson

Dr Amanda Beatson, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in marketing at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Her research focuses on services marketing and management, drivers of service success, self-service technologies, and enhancing consumer experiences. Her work has been published in a range of journals including the Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business Ethics, Service Industries Journal, and Services Marketing Quarterly.

ORICD iD iconhttp://orcid.org/0000-0001-7741-2060

Ian Lings

Ian Lings

Dr Ian Lings, PhD, is a Professor in marketing at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. His research explores the ‘firm–employee–customer’ triad and has been published in a range of journals including the Journal of Service Research, the Journal of Business Research, Long Range Planning, and the Journal of Services Marketing. Ian co-authored the research-student focused book: ‘Doing Business Research: A Guide to Theory and Practice’ (Sage). He is an associate editor of the European Journal of Marketing and sits on the international advisory board of the Journal of Service Management.

ORICD iD iconhttp://orcid.org/0000-0002-6150-5470

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.