Study explores qualities of people who value socially responsible companies

Do you feel you have a lot to be grateful for in life? Would you pay a little more to buy a product from a company that has good environmental practices?

The questions may seem unrelated, but research by Karen Paul, professor, Department of Management and International Business in the College of Business Administration, brought them—and many others—together in the first studies undertaken to shed light on the relationship between positive psychology and the areas of business ethics and social responsibility.

“In the last decade, researchers have begun to look at psychology not in terms of pathologies, but rather, in light of certain positive attributes like happiness, success, and effective functioning,” Paul said.

In the first of the two studies, she and two colleagues looked at hope and gratitude. In the second, they focused on spirituality and generativity (concern for future generations). Their aim: to see how these aspects of positive psychology might relate to a person’s reaction to corporate policies.

“We found that all four qualities did predict people’s attitudes to corporate social performance,” Paul said. “We also discovered that people who scored high in both hope and gratitude had the strongest concerns about corporate social performance.”

Study uses instrument devised by Paul.

Among the questionnaires, the researchers used an instrument that Paul developed with graduate students in the college. Called the “Consumer Sensitivity to Corporate Social Responsibility Scale,” she and others have employed the tool effectively in the United States, Great Britain, South Africa, and The Netherlands.

The survey includes eleven items designed to measure a consumer’s sensitivity to corporate actions related to pollution, corporate philanthropy, and disclosure of social information. Offering five options, from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” it asks respondents to answer questions such as, “I would be willing to pay a little more to buy a product from a company that has a good record in hiring and promoting women.”

Findings from the studies—and those that may come from follow-on studies—offer a number of implications for businesses. The subject of corporate negligence has been center stage of late given the Enron scandal and other corporate debacles. However, just as positive psychology looks not at pathology but at positive characteristics, the opportunity to move companies toward greater corporate social responsibility has a positive orientation.

“Marketing departments pay attention to what consumers want human resources professionals are concerned about employees’ expectations, and top management heeds investors,” Paul said. “Departments within corporations need to add corporate social responsibility to the factors they consider in their decision-making processes.”

Corporate citizenship is good business.

There may even be a trend afoot: Forbes.com published a special report, “Corporate Citizenship,” which examines how companies can lead in this arena and make it profitable (http://www.forbes.com/home/2006/11/27/leadership-philanthropy-lead-citizen-cx_ag_1128land.html).

Paul and her co-authors published the results of their two studies in an article titled “A Preliminary Investigation into the Role of Positive Psychology in Consumer Sensitivity to Corporate Social Performance.” It appeared in the Journal of Business Ethics, the leading journal in the field of business and corporate ethics. Her interest in the research grew out of her work on socially responsible investing, chronicled in an article titled “‘Bottom line’ vs ‘good corporate citizen’: Business professor demonstrates that socially responsible investing pays off,” in FIU Magazine.

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