Self Concept, Social Comparison and Cognitive Dissonance in Sustainable Consumption

Master's Thesis, 2019

95 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

Table of Contents

List of Figures

List of Tables

List of Abbreviations

1. Introduction

2. Literature Review
2.1 Sustainable Consumption Behaviour
2.2 Cognitive Dissonance Theory
2.3 Self-Concept Theory
2.4 Social Comparison Theory

3. Empirical Analysis and Conceptual Framework
3.1 Cognitive Dissonance & Self-Concept Relating to Sustainable Consumption
3.2 Vicarious Dissonance & Social Comparison Relating to Consumption
3.3 Conceptual Framework

4. Methodology
4.1 Data Collection
4.2 Data Analysis

5. Findings
5.1 Research Results
5.2 Result Interpretation & Discussion

6. Conclusion and Recommendations
6.1 Summary & Conclusion
6.2 Recommendations


List of Appendices

List of Figures

Figure 1: The VBN theory of environmentalism

Figure 2: Self-concept hierarchy

Figure 3: Motives for social comparison

Figure 4: Self-prophecy experiments inducing dissonance

Figure 5: Average volunteered phone calls for experimental conditions

Figure 6: Attitude change from vicarious dissonance with varying conditions

Figure 7: Percentage of women redeeming sunscreen coupons

Figure 8: Conceptual framework of induced hypocrisy conditions

List of Tables

Table 1: Filtering methods to achieve final sample

Table 2: Reliability and factor analysis

Table 3: Scale mean and corresponding skewness and kurtosis z-values

Table 4: Shapiro-Wilk test of normality

Table 5: Wilcoxon test of mean pre and post attitude scores for both hypocrisy conditions

Table 6: Mann Whitney U test of mean post attitude scores for both hypocrisy conditions

Table 7: Wilcoxon test of mean pre and post attitude scores for mindfulness groups (for personal hypocrisy only)

Table 8: Mann Whitney U test of mean behavioural intention scores for both hypocrisy conditions

Table 9: Mann Whitney U test of mean active involvement scores for both hypocrisy conditions

List of Abbreviations

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1. Introduction

The research conducted in this study is particularly relevant to society's growing awareness and concern towards the planets' capacity for sustaining a growing global population and the need to change current consumer habits in order to avoid irreversible damage to the environment (Schor, 2005). Sustainability can be defined as the ability to adhere to current needs without foregoing the needs of future generations (WCED, 1987). With rising global temperatures, the notion of sustainability is more relevant than ever before with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning of catastrophic implications if global temperatures are not reduced in the next decade (Watts, 2018). Thus, at the 2018 United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference in Poland, world leaders finalized plans on implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement by setting targets to reduce carbon emissions and deadlines to adhere to them (Harvey, 2018). Sustainability is also gaining foothold as an important topic for businesses to consider, with the term “triple bottom line” gaining traction in both business and research which considers not only economic performance but also the social and environmental impact of business (Sheth et al., 2011). This is supported in a recent report from the Boston Consultancy Group (BCG) which showed increased company revenues and performance when these three factors of sustainability are incorporated in company activities and referred to this as Total Societal Impact (TSI) (BCG, 2017).

Consumer behaviour can be defined as “all consumer activities associated with the purchase, use and disposal of goods and services, including the consumer's emotional, mental and behavioural responses that precede, determine or follow these activities.” (Kardes et al., 2011, p.8). This definition shows the broad nature of this field, the various ways in which it can be studied and how marketing professionals are able to influence the different aspects of these cognitive and behavioural processes (Sethna and Blythe, 2016). The study of consumer behaviour is an amalgamation of essential theories and research from various disciplines such as psychology, sociology, economics and neuroscience in order to enhance the understanding of the “why” and “how” of consumption behaviour (Sethna and Blythe, 2016). The theories applied in this research stem from the psychology and sociology disciplines and comprises of the cognitive dissonance theory, self-concept theory and the social comparison theory and each are discussed in turn in chapter two.

The paper aims to analyse consumer behaviour and the drivers of sustainable consumption, which can assist businesses and policymakers to encourage consumers towards more sustainable behaviours and lifestyles (Jackson, 2014). It will therefore analyse how nudging consumers about social and environmental issues could effectively steer them towards the sustainable option instead of the non-sustainable alternative when evaluating purchase decisions. This involves highlighting the perceived importance of sustainability for the self and within society by making consumers mindful of personal and social norms and values. This in turn, can create positive spillover effects to other pro-environmental behaviours especially when these personal norms are strengthened (Th0gersen and Ölander, 2003).

This research aims to investigate how cognitive dissonance can be reduced in order to encourage sustainable consumption, with this being the basis of the theoretical framework. Consequently, the following problem statement can be put forward:

How can the cognitive dissonance between sustainable consumption and non- sustainable consumption be reduced?

Therefore, it is important to understand the nature of cognitive dissonance and how and why consumers use it to justify or comprehend the reasoning behind their decisions which will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter. However, the goal of this thesis is to determine whether cognitive dissonance can be reduced using other notable consumer behaviour theories namely self-concept and social comparison. These theories can assist in analysing the motivations related to consumer behaviour by exploring various techniques to overcome the impeding dissonance. Hence, the ensuing research question is proposed:

Can self-concept preservation and/or social comparison reduce the dissonance between sustainable and non-sustainable consumption?

The research question and thus the main objective of this thesis will be investigated through an empirical study structured as follows. The next chapter provides the theoretical background through a literature review on the key concepts and theories related to the research question. Chapter three aims to derive the conceptual framework by providing an empirical background through the discussion of previous research and findings on this topic as well as stating the proposed hypotheses for the study. Chapter four explicates the chosen methodology and research strategy by describing and detailing the data collection and analysis techniques employed. Chapter five first presents the research results then provides an interpretation and critical discussion of these results. Chapter six concludes the research paper with a summary and reviews the papers' contribution and its limitations while also providing recommendations for research practice and theory.

2. Literature Review

The following chapter will provide some background to the core theories concerning the research topic in addition to analysing essential definitions and models. This chapter will also outline relating paradigms and the motivations behind the selected concepts will be explored.

2.1 Sustainable Consumption Behaviour

The following will analyse several definitions of sustainable consumption, then key models of sustainable consumer behaviour will be discussed. The section will conclude with examining the sustainable consumption measure that will be used in the empirical analysis of this research project.

Definitions of Sustainable Consumption

The phrase ‘sustainable consumption' first appeared in the Agenda 21 policy document during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit as one of the main challenges for sustainability (Jackson and Michaelis, 2003; Manoochehri, 2001). Since then, sustainable consumption has received international recognition from research and policy organisations with the common understanding that the current state of resource consumption is unsustainable leading to hazardous effects to humans and the environment (Lim, 2017). This acknowledgement has also led to extensive research on promoting and understanding consumer behaviour towards socially responsible consumption (Jackson, 2005; Banbury et al., 2012).

There have been various definitions of what is meant by sustainable consumption as researchers continue to be divided on a universal definition due to its broad multi-faceted nature (Lim, 2017; Peattie and Collins, 2009). Hertwich and Katzmayr (2004) define this concept as ensuring that consumption is distributed more equally across the globe and by decreasing the global environmental burden. Lim (2017) calls for a more holistic understanding of all impending impacts ensuing throughout the whole production and consumption lifecycle of products which in turn will enable adopting sustainable development. The definitions from Geiger et al. (2018) and Phipps et al. (2013) attempt to also include these aspects as they state that sustainable consumption should encompass the consumption life-cycle of goods and services. That is namely their acquisition, usage and disposal without compromising the environmental, social, and economic aspects of the earth and society when satisfying ones needs and thereby sustaining the needs of future generations.

Jackson and Michaelis (2003) imply that one of the most influential definitions is that from Manoochehri (2001) which asserts the need to consume differently and efficiently as opposed to merely consuming less. However, the definition most extensively used in sustainability literature (Banbury et al., 2012; Dolan, 2002) is the working definition from the 1994 Oslo Symposium on Sustainable Consumption, which is also used by this paper, it states:

“The use of services and related products which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimising the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life-cycle so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations.” (Oslo Symposium on Sustainable Consumption cited in Banbury et al., 2012, p.497)

Most of these definitions explore the aspects of consumer behaviour and consumerism lifestyles as well as examining the production processes that influence how products are consumed. There is also the general theme of ensuring one's needs are met whilst also remaining mindful towards the needs of generations to come. The more recent definitions by Geiger et al. (2018) and Phipps et al. (2013) tend to incorporate the social and economic aspects of conscious consumption and not only the explicit environmental factors which results in a more comprehensive assessment on sustainable consumption.

Following on from these definitions, and the extensive research on this topic, two broad literature streams emerge on consumer motivations towards sustainable consumption. The first stream, identifies the psychological features that constitute environmentally- conscious behaviour through which sustainable consumption can be promoted when this is reproduced and expanded (Th0gerson, 1999; Th0gersen and Ölander, 2002). The second stream highlights the social and emotional detriments of over-consumption and the harmful effects of an excessively materialistic society (Schor, 2005; Schaefer and Crane, 2005). This paper will focus on the former approach by analysing the attitudes and behaviours that are needed or can be acquired to encourage and maintain sustainable consumption. It is therefore useful to review some models and theories of sustainable consumer behaviour.

Models of Sustainable Consumer Behaviour

There are numerous theories and models developed to explore pro-environmental behaviour which is defined as “individual behaviours that contribute to environmental sustainability” (Ones et al., 2015, p.83). Some models include The Theory of Planned Behaviour by Ajzen (1991) which extends on The Theory of Reasoned Action (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975), and the Attitude-Behaviour-Context (ABC) model (Guagnano et al., 1995). However, Stern's (2000) Value-Belief-Norm (VBN) theory will be examined in more detail as it is one of the most prominent theories exploring this topic. The Motivation-Opportunity-Abilities (MOA) framework will also be assessed from a marketing angle.

The VBN theory (Stern and Dietz,1994; Stern et al., 1999; Stern, 2000) builds on the moral norm-activation theory from Schwarz (1972) and theory of personal values. This theory stems from three environment-orientated value positions namely egoistic, altruistic and biospheric which represent environmental protection for oneself, the society and nature respectively based on personal, social or nature-related reasons (Stern and Dietz, 1994). These values are linked to inherent beliefs about the ecological environment represented by the new ecological paradigm (NEP) which is a widely accepted worldview on human actions and the adverse implications towards the environment (Dunlap and Van Liere, 1978, 1984; Dunlap et al, 2000). The VBN model postulates that consumers holding strong altruistic and biospheric values are more likely to accept the NEP worldview than those with egoistic values. The acceptance of the NEP results in further beliefs of adverse consequences occurring to valued objects and the realized ability to reduce this threat which activates personal norms. This in turn, prompts an obligation or responsibility which influences various pro-environmental behaviours whether privately via actively consuming sustainably or through public activism (see figure one) (Stern, 2000). Thus, in short, the VBN theory provides the suitable theoretical background for assessing how the development of environmentally-conscious values and beliefs result in changing attitudes. This is then a pertinent driver of behavioural intentions and thus ultimately predicts and influences actual behaviour of consuming sustainably (Phipps et al., 2013).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1:The VBN theory of environmentalism (Stern, 2000, p.412)

From a marketing perspective, one can influence consumer behaviour through a social marketing approach which is underlined by the MOA framework (Rothschild, 1999). Opportunity is a key factor of behaviour since sustainable products that are made easily available and accessible will increase the likelihood of purchase. Additionally, sustainable purchases can be encouraged by increasing consumers ability to acquire information about the sustainable nature of the product through labelling and transparency (De Jonge et al., 2014). However, consumers motivation for buying sustainable products is the most important determinant as without it, behaviour change is unlikely to occur regardless of opportunity and ability. Motivation for sustainable products is weighted against the perceived costs and benefits compared with non- sustainable alternatives thus marketing campaigns can first activate sustainability values then highlight concrete benefits which can increase demand and attractiveness of the sustainable product. Furthermore, social marketing initiatives that activate social norms and social identification can enhance sustainable consumption especially when one's behaviour is made public (De Jonge et al., 2014).

Sustainable Consumption Measure

Since the 1950s, it is estimated that around 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste have entered the world's oceans creating waste management crises and killing much ocean wildlife resulting in the loss of biodiversity (Leonard, 2018). Plastic waste, especially microplastics, enter our food and water supply as it has been found in tap water around the world and inside many fish species we eat, with studies estimating humans ingesting around 5 grams of plastic every week (Gerretsen, 2019). The solutions are complex; however, many Western countries will start banning single-use plastics which is a large contributor to the plastic problem. Further solutions include encouraging people to reuse and recycle as much as possible thereby purchasing products which are easy to recycle in order to close the loop and avoid waste ending up in oceans and landfills (Parker, 2018).

Throughout the last decade, there has also been a steady rise in the demand for products that are produced sustainably and are easy to recycle as consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the growing environmental damage and climate crisis humans are facing. According to the Nielsen's 2015 Global Sustainability Report, 66% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable goods across differing regions and income levels with Millennials and Generation Z (those born in the mid 1990s and early 2000s) are the most willing to pay a price premium (Nielsen, 2015). The report also found consumer demand has been influenced by brand trust with consumers more willing to buy from brands that display commitment to environmental and social factors. This has translated into greater sales and growth for companies employing a marketing strategy promoting their pro-environmental and social values. However, as Peattie and Collins (2009) argue, willingness does not, in most cases, translate to actual sustainable consumption due to the attitude-behaviour gap which describes how one's attitude does not necessarily translate into actual behaviour. Thus, in order to effectively encourage sustainable consumption, the attitude-behaviour gap needs to be closed to promote actual behaviour change. This paper will assess both attitude and behaviour as both are needed to generate and sustain long-term norms and habits.

In light of the aforesaid, this paper aims at prompting consumers to use sustainable alternatives to plastic and to encourage the recycling of plastic and other waste. Recycling will be used as an effective method for encouraging sustainable consumption by inducing dissonance since when consumers are aware of the need to recycle, they will buy and use products that can be recycled and will dispose of these items correctly. This can encompass many different products such as food and packaging waste as well as clothing and electronic waste. Recycling is also something that is easy and accessible to almost everyone regardless of age, gender or socio-economic status. Thus, it will be used in measuring sustainable consumption for the online surveys discussed further in chapter four.

2.2 Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance theory was first introduced by Leon Festinger over 60 years ago, yet it remains relevant today as hundreds of studies have since used this theory to gain insights into an array of various psychological processes. These include determinants of attitudes, values and beliefs, decision processes and social interaction and (dis)agreements (Brehm and Cohen, 1962; Harmon-Jones and Mills, 1999). It has also been referred to as one of the most prominent and significant developments in social psychology (Jones, 1985). Decades later, this theory remained highly insightful both within and beyond the laboratory setting such that by the mid 1970s the theory had appeared in papers from varying disciplines including economics, political science, anthropology and philosophy. This wide-spread publicity also entered into popular culture by appearing in several newspaper and magazine articles and even daytime soap operas (Aronson, 1992). Brehm and Cohen (1962) highlight several reasons for the almost instant popularity of this theory such as the scarcity of sophisticated and clearly specified theories in social psychology. Another reason being the attractiveness of the general, abstract nature of the theory and its applicability to an extensive array of important psychological topics involving cognition, emotion and motivation (Harmon- Jones and Mills, 1999). And lastly, the theory and its derivations are clearly testable through experiments. This is supported by Aronson (1992) who claims that the theory allowed the initiation of a new experimental methodology “...a powerful, high-impact set of procedures.. .to ask truly important questions very precisely” (p.304)

Definitions of Cognitive Dissonance

Festinger (1957) introduces the terms dissonance and consonance to infer ‘inconsistency' and ‘consistency' respectively. He hypothesized that the psychological discomforting state of dissonance will motivate the individual to reduce this tension and avoid situations and knowledge that would increase dissonance in order to return to consonance. Festinger (1957) stated that a pair of cognitions are dissonant or inconsistent when one cognition follows from the opposite of the other. He defined a cognition as any information, awareness or belief about a persons' self, behaviour and environment. Thus, the phrase cognitive dissonance refers to the precursor condition of initiating the pursuit of decreasing dissonance just as thirst leads to the activity of quenching thirst (Festinger, 1957). Therefore, as Aronson (1992) describes, the theory is essentially about sensemaking and practicality in order to provide personal meaning to individual behaviour and their environment. Brehm and Cohen (1962) express cognitive dissonance theory as “...a psychological tension having motivational characteristics” (p.3) which involve situations that arouse dissonance in a person and the means of reducing this dissonance. Aronson (1969) defines cognitive dissonance as a “negative drive state” (p.2) occurring from a pair of psychologically inconsistent cognitions. Harmon-Jones et al. (2015) explains dissonance arising in situations when two relevant cognitions are also inconsistent with each other. Festinger (1962) relates dissonance in terms of expectations and explains this phenomenon occurs due to the lack of certain expectations being fulfilled.

These various explanations of cognitive dissonance are similar in explicating the contradictory nature of two cognitions occurring to cause the mental conflict of dissonance. Another important theme is the notion of inconsistency between the two cognitions, which fundamentally motivates dissonance reduction. This motivational nature of inconsistent cognitions results in dissonance being reduced by either changing the cognition(s) to become more consonant with one another or by adding a new consonant cognition(s) thereby decreasing, avoiding or eradicating the emerged inconsistency (Wicklund and Brehm, 1976).

The Magnitude & Reduction of Dissonance

The magnitude or degree of dissonance and its contingent properties impacts the avenues taken to reduce the occurring dissonance. The magnitude of dissonance depends on the number and importance of cognitions that are consonant or dissonant with the cognition under consideration. Thus, the magnitude or dissonance ratio is directly proportional to the summation of all dissonance cognitions and their importance and is inversely proportional to the summation of all consonant cognitions and their importance. Therefore, increasing dissonant cognitions increases the magnitude of dissonance and the inverse is true for consonant cognitions (Harmon-Jones and Mills, 1999).

One of the best ways to reduce dissonance and thus the magnitude of dissonance, is to reduce the dissonant cognition(s) by either changing one's attitude or behaviour with attitude being the easiest to change while behaviour change tends to have a more lasting effect. Other dissonance reductions include adding cognitions to support the discrepant cognitions, placing more importance on consonant cognitions and/or reducing the importance (trivialising) of the dissonant cognitions. These methods all aim to increase or decrease the total magnitude of dissonance which, in turn, influences the amount of dissonance one experiences (Cooper, 2007).

The Motivations that Drive Dissonance

When Festinger (1957) first introduced the theory, he discussed the motivational properties behind dissonance occurring from a drive state and feelings of discomfort and tension. This has been proven in several studies testing for such effects such as those by Zanna and Cooper (1974) and Losch and Cacioppo (1990). Taken together, the authors proved that such uncomfortable arousal exists since, given the opportunity, individuals will misattribute their reactions only to an uncomforting negative stimulus rather than a positive one. A further study by Elliot and Devine (1994) also aimed to test the motivational properties of dissonance. The authors directly asked participants for their emotional responses using words such as ‘uneasy, uncomfortable, bothered' to test for dissonance and also positive and negative emotional states (e.g. happy, sad, guilty etc.) in a 15-item questionnaire later known as the Dissonance Thermometer[I]. The results found participants reporting feelings of discomfort after completing an induced dissonance task but only when affect was measured first. When attitude was measured first, participants changed their attitude and reported reduced affective discomfort concluding that dissonance is in fact uncomfortable and is reduced through attitude change.

Research Paradigms and Revisions of Dissonance Theory

As Festinger's research inspired countless experiments exploring decision-making, attitude and behaviour changes, they can be evaluated under various dissonance research paradigms namely free-choice, effort-justification and induced-compliance.


1 First coined by Devine et al. (1999)

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Self Concept, Social Comparison and Cognitive Dissonance in Sustainable Consumption
University of Hannover
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self, concept, social, comparison, cognitive, dissonance, sustainable, consumption
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Aminah Kechiche (Author), 2019, Self Concept, Social Comparison and Cognitive Dissonance in Sustainable Consumption, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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