The term “victim blaming” has entered the modern public discourse and a Lundquist College of Business PhD candidate is finding links between the phenomenon and the free market.
“People sometimes use irrelevant information about a product user to blame the victim when a company produces a faulty product, allowing a bad company practice to continue,” explained Brandon Reich. “The implication is that this may violate some of the assumptions underlying free market capitalism. The free market assumes consumers will punish the firm when it deserves it, but misattributing blame prevents this from happening.”
Reich and his coauthors describe this phenomenon in their paper “Who Deserves Faulty Products? How Blaming the Victim Prevents Consumer Punitive Action,” which is currently under revision for publication in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
Robert Madrigal, now at California State University, Chico, served as coauthor and advisor. Assistant professor of marketing Troy Campbell is also a coauthor.
In various experiments, the researchers show that consumers sometimes blame victims of product failure due to the victim’s perceived morality and likeability.
“They believe that immoral or unlikeable people deserve bad outcomes more generally,” Reich explained. “Of course, those characteristics of a product user are totally irrelevant to the product failure itself.”
To illustrate this, the paper uses several experiments and examples, including the following incident from April 2017.
Passenger Dr. David Dao boarded a United Airlines flight in accordance with all regulations. A crew member announced that the flight had been overbooked and that four passengers must give up their seats to make room for additional crew members. With no volunteers, the crew randomly selected four passengers, one of whom was Dao. When Dao refused to give up his seat, he was forcibly dragged off the plane by aviation police, resulting in a broken nose and concussion.
“A lot of consumers were outraged, but others blamed the victim—bringing up actions from a decade ago—actions that had nothing to do with incident. These reports alleged that Dao had lost his medical license in 2005 for trading prescription drugs for sex. Although Dao’s past behavior bore no logical connection to the United incident, the implication was that the victim, not the company, was blameworthy because he was a bad person who deserved to suffer,” Reich said.
To test whether this information might sway consumer action against United Airlines, a team of research assistants armed with clipboards asked passersby if they would like to participate in a public opinion poll. Some were presented with only the incident information, whereas others were provided the incident information along with the unrelated fact about David Dao’s past bad behavior. All were then asked to sign a petition to bring about a lawsuit against United. Results showed that the group presented with the additional information about the victim’s moral character were significantly less likely to agree to sign.
Combined with several other experiments, the findings of the research show that consumers may blame victims of product failure based on beliefs about deservingness (rather than evidential standards) and that this misattribution of blame makes consumers less likely to take punitive actions against companies that produce faulty products. A final study also showed that the effect can be diminished if consumers are instilled with a sense of compassion before forming blame judgments.
An earlier version of the paper garnered Reich an Association for Consumer Research (ACR) ACR/Sheth Foundation Dissertation Award, which recognizes “top doctoral dissertations on topics that deal with any aspect of cross-cultural or global consumer behavior and/or the public purpose of consumer research.”
Reich earned his undergraduate degree in psychology and saw the opportunity to apply it to his research. Another reason he was drawn to the subject was his experience as a consumer.
“I think carefully about what I buy, what brands I’m supporting, and I’m interested in what decisions make other people do the same thing,” he said. “I would also like my research to contribute to some sort of social good while also helping companies understand some very real movements within the marketplace.”
Describing himself as “young in my career,” Reich found it rewarding to collaborate with professors directly on the research project and even serve as first author. Such close collaboration with faculty is a hallmark of the Lundquist College of Business’s PhD program, which, thanks to a $1 million gift from Roger and Robin Best, rewards doctoral students for research, publishing, and great teaching.
Reich also recently had a second paper about the local foods movement, or “locavorism”—often defined as only eating food produced within a 100-mile radius of one’s location—accepted to the Journal of Consumer Research. Assistant professor of marketing Joshua Beck served as coauthor on that paper, as well as former Lundquist College student John Price.
Having a paper accepted to a top peer-reviewed journal like the Journal of Consumer Research while still a student is a significant accomplishment and a brag point not only for Reich and Price, but for the PhD program itself and the impact of the Bests’s investment.
—AnneMarie Knepper-Sjoblom '05