New PSU research reveals role of morality in blaming victims of product failure
Author: Crista Tappan, The School of Business
Posted: December 11, 2019

Dr. David Dao of Kentucky, 69, had no idea his life was about to turn upside down after he bought a ticket and boarded a United Airlines flight in Chicago in 2017.

That ill-fated flight made headlines across the nation when the airline physically removed Dao from the over-sold plane. It showed how a product failure (or service lapse) can result in consumer harm.

More importantly, perhaps, was what happened afterward. Consumer sentiment initially sided with Dao but changed after an unrelated incident surfaced from his past that reflected on his morality.

Such shifts in public opinion are the focus of the new series of studies from The School of Business at Portland State University. An article reporting these studies “Who Deserves Faulty Products? How Blaming the Victim Prevents Consumer Punitive Action,” was published by the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

In the study, business professor Bandon Reich and his two colleagues wrote that a successful self-regulating free market requires consumers to hold companies accountable for selling faulty products or services.

The researchers argue that collectively, consumers have the power to hold companies accountable for a faulty product or service failure. 

“In fact, it is our responsibility to do so as consumers within a free-market system,” said researcher Brandon Reich. “Simply by clarifying when and how consumers behave counter to that responsibility, the hope is that individual consumers and other concerned organizations may work to shift blame away from victims and back towards offending companies in similar product-failure situations.”

The researchers state self-regulating free markets are jeopardized when, due to irrelevant information, blame is incorrectly directed toward the victim, instead of the firm that caused a harmful product failure.

The study also found victims who exhibited immoral behavior in an unrelated domain can cause consumers to be less likely to take punitive action against the offending company because the victim is seen as deserving of their suffering.

When officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation dragged Dao off the plane, he suffered two lost teeth, a broken nose and concussion. Consumers around the world were initially outraged and agreed United Airlines was at fault.

After the incident, several news reports detailed how Dao had once lost his medical license for trading prescription drugs for sex. Regardless of its lack of connection with the United Airlines event, this revelation caused the public to shift blame from the airlines to Dao — all because he was perceived as a bad person.

According to the researchers, the public tendency to find fault in victims by assessing their moral character has become increasingly common. They found that morality is considered the most essential element in contributing to interpersonal judgments and is closely linked with demands for justice.

Blaming an immoral victim allows the observer to maintain the belief that bad people get what they deserve. This, in turn, causes companies to continue to make faulty products or give poor service, which is a detriment to societal well-being.

This research has far-reaching implications. For instance, it helps explain why some #MeToo victims have seen favorable public opinion shift away from them and towards their abusers.

Reich’s co-authors are Troy Campbell from the University of Oregon and Robert Madrigal from California State University, Chico.