Identity has traditionally been studied at the level of the “self”: how consumers’ own beliefs about their identities influence their choices, values and behavior. However, identities exist within a social context where they are both signaled by “actors” and perceived by “observers.” Importantly, the authors propose that consumers, as observers, use identity-relevant information to evaluate actors’ consumption choices, ultimately demonstrating that identical behavior can be evaluated differently as a function of actors’ perceived identities. They illustrate these points by focusing on income identities and ethical consumption choices. Their experiments demonstrate that while low-income consumers receiving government assistance (welfare recipients) are viewed as less moral, wealthy consumers are seen as more moral for the same choices. The wealthy identity is associated with “spending freedom”; the welfare identity is associated with “should be frugal and seeking employment.” Identity judgments extend beyond aid recipients themselves, and even have consequences for organizations supporting low-income groups.
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