Hint: Your brain has something to do with it
We live in an age of boycotts. It seems as if every week a new company or product is the subject of a trending boycott hashtag: #DeleteUber, #BoycottNordstrom, #BoycottPepsi, #NoNetflix. And we don’t just speak out against a company’s actions—we vow to use our power as consumers to hit brands where it hurts the most, their bank account. I know someone who won’t buy Barilla pasta because the company is anti-gay. A friend refuses to buy Apple products because of their proprietary obsession. “If enough people do it,” he says, “they’ll have to change their practices.” This is the same mindset millions of people are taking in the #GrabYourWallet movement, which organizes boycotts of major retailers selling Trump family products. Many folks think the power they have as consumers is greater than their political voice, so they see these boycotts as the only way to enact change.
It’s true, boycotting makes us feel very powerful, as if we’re actually making a difference—but the question is whether or not we actually are.
In most cases, our boycotts do not have much of an impact. In fact, they never have: 75 percent of boycotts lead to no concession on a company’s part at all. But the reason is not for lack of speaking up—it’s that people can’t keep the promises they make. People like to say they will boycott certain companies to feel as if they’re exerting their power, except they actually don’t have the willpower to stop making those purchases. Last month, #GrabYourWallet had more than two million monthly unique views and more than 950 million shares on social media. But Nordstrom, number one on their boycott list, did extremely well in their first quarter, earning 37 percent more than the previous year’s. Amazon, No. 6 on the boycott list, exceeded its estimated first quarter earnings by $360 million. Even though people are claiming to boycott, they’re still buying, and the companies aren’t suffering.
Research has shown that our consumer habits are simply too powerful for boycotts to work. “It’s just hard to stop buying a product you’re used to buying,” says Northwestern Professor Brayden King on Freakonomics Radio. “Even consumers who are ideologically supportive of a boycott don’t tend to follow through and support the boycott because they won’t want to change their behavior.” People don’t realize how much they rely on certain products or brands in their everyday lives—like Starbucks coffee or Netflix—so when they have to take them away all of the sudden, especially for a lofty, distant-feeling cause, it’s extremely difficult. So difficult, they just don’t have the willpower to do it.
Humans fall victim to what is known in psychology as motivated reasoning: our tendency to decide what we want first, then come up with reasons to support what we’ve already decided we want. For example, I have friends who claim to be opposed to Uber, but when Lyft is more expensive, they are less likely to hold so strongly to their impassioned boycott. In other words, we decide that we want to use Uber because it’s cheaper, and then we defend our reasoning. (“Well, this one $8 ride won’t make a difference.”) Georgetown consumer behavior researcher Neeru Paharia has examined why our resolve doesn’t always match our rhetoric. She found that people will stick to their morals only when they do not actually like the product. The problem is that when we like a product, we will find a way to reconcile our distaste. “We decide what is moral based on how much we want something,” Paharia told NPR’s “Hidden Brain.”
The more distance we can put between ourselves and an action that we view as unethical, the easier it is for us to continue to support it, according to Paharia. She uses the example of sweatshops: We may be against sweatshops in practice, but if a company outsources their labor, even if they’re still employing sweatshops, we feel removed enough to defend buying the product. Apple, for example, has come under scrutiny for its treatment of their workers. And yet, Apple is the most valuable company on the stock market. The same issue of distance is relevant to Trump products. It’s easy enough to boycott Trump businesses and products—it’s much harder to boycott the many, many companies that have endorsed Trump or stock his products. The additional degree of separation makes it cognitively easier for us to defend to ourselves. After all, we’re not buying from Trump directly, we’re just buying from a store that also happens to sell his products.
Our country has a rich history of boycotting—from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the boycott of French products—à la “freedom fries”—in 2003 to the New Balance sneaker boycott this past November. Though we might feel as if this makes a difference, it’s just that: a feeling. Speaking up with your wallet can make a splash and generate some news, but it’s not enough to enact real change. True impact comes from protesters camping at Standing Rock for a year or from the legal case against the Montgomery bus company. Real change requires more than saying you won’t buy something. It requires showing up to your congressman’s office or town hall meetings, marching in protests, picking up the phone to call your representatives, signing petitions, writing letters and emails—making noise whenever and wherever possible.