When Guilt is Not Enough: Interdependent Self-Construal as Moderator of the Relationship Between Guilt and Ethical Consumption in a Confucian Context


Guilt appeals have been found effective in stimulating ethical consumption behaviors in western cultures. However, studies performed in Confucian cultural contexts have found contradictory results. We aim to investigate the inconclusive results of research on guilt and ethical consumption and to explain the inconsistencies. We aim to better understand the influence of guilt on ethical consumption in a Chinese Confucian context and to explore the culturally relevant individual-level concept of interdependent self-construal as a moderator. We build our argument on the Confucian ethics of ren-yi-li where the virtue of propriety (li 礼) specifies role-based obligations depending on the proximity of one’s relationship to others and may thus limit ethical behaviors that are directed to those who are relationally distant. We hypothesize a positive relationship between guilt and ethical consumption that is, however, negatively moderated by interdependent self-construal. Put another way, consumers who define themselves strongly through their relationships with close others are less likely to compensate for guilt through ethical consumption. We find the hypothesized model supported in a survey of 314 Chinese consumers. The results suggest that guilt appeals can stimulate ethical consumption in Confucian cultures. However, guilt appeals may not be enough, as the moderating effect suggests that they will be most effective when combined with an ethical consumption initiative that conforms to the Confucian li principle. As this principle implies prioritizing close over distant relationships, it follows that consumers may be more likely to respond to guilt appeals which are linked to ethical consumption initiatives whose beneficiaries they feel connected to.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    While the pretest population was “46 part-time undergraduate students at a large university in southern Taiwan,” Chang (2011, p. 595) does not reveal cultural background of the main survey participants, who were identified “through the MSN membership directory.”

  2. 2.

    Note that this statement is based on Kim and Johnson’s (2013) Fig. 2, which shows a negative slope for the high interdependent graph, and on data presented in their Table 2, which displays a significantly negative guilt x interdependence interaction at -.16 together with the direct effect becoming insignificant. While highly interdependent respondents showed a generally higher purchase intention than less interdependent respondents, we do not agree with their interpretation that “The influence of … guilt on purchase intention was greater for high interdependent participants than for low-interdependent participants” (abstract, p. 79) and that the “participants scoring as high interdependents may purchase social-cause products because their strong interdependence motivates them to alleviate any feelings of guilt by purchasing the merchandise.” (p. 87). It should further be noted that their results were influenced by interactions between the various emotions. This explains why the accumulated effect of guilt on purchase intention is negative in their Table 1 and Fig. 2, but positive in their Table 2 (at changing significance levels).

  3. 3.

    Kim and Johnson (2013, p. 84) measure emotions as proneness to each emotion, asking respondents “how strongly he/she would experience each emotion.” It appears, however, that this item is presented without a specific context situation in which the emotion is expected to occur. As a result, the negative emotions of anger and guilt are scored between .39 and .60 on a 0–5 scale, which is noteworthy because the all studies in our list using similar item wordings to measure anticipated guilt or guilt proneness report scores between 3 and 4 on a comparable scale. It seems that such extremely skewed construct scores increase the likelihood that regression results may be biased by outliers.

  4. 4.

    The original quote from The Doctrine of the Mean in The Book of Rites (礼记-中庸) reads: 仁者, 人也, 亲亲为大; 义者, 宜也, 尊贤为大; 亲亲之杀, 尊贤之等, 礼所生焉。An earlier published translation by Charles Muller (1991) reads: “You cultivate your character through the way and you manifest the way by means of Jen [referred to as benevolence (ren) in this paper]. Jen is humanity and its most obvious function is in love for relatives. Justice [‘righteousness’ in this paper] means setting things right and its most obvious function is venerating the good. The different levels in loving relatives and venerating the good are expressed through propriety.”

  5. 5.

    仁, 人心也。义, 人路也。From Mencius 《孟子-告子上》。In traditional Chinese belief, one’s heart, instead of mind, is seen as where thoughts originate.

  6. 6.

    Some authors further consider existential guilt (e.g., Lwin and Phau 2014) as a general feeling of living a first-world or very privileged life (Huhmann and Brotherton 1997; Izard 1977). We focus on anticipatory and reactive guilt as we are interested in guilt responses that are connected to specific acts of consumption.

  7. 7.

    先天下之忧而忧, 后天下之乐而乐。《岳阳楼记》, 范仲淹。From The Yueyang Tower, Zhongyan, Fan in Song Dynasty.



Average variance extracted


Confirmatory factor analysis


Comparative fit index


Composite reliability


Cause-related marketing


Exploratory factor analysis


Root-mean-square error of approximation


Structural equation modeling


Tucker-Lewis Index


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The authors thank section editor Scott Vitell and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive and developmental feedback and guidance during the review process. Furthermore, we very much thank Ms. Susannah Davis for contributing to the conceptual argument of this study and for her editing work on the manuscript. Yanyan Chen acknowledges financial support through the University of Nottingham Ningbo China Ph.D. scholarship program.

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Chen, Y., Moosmayer, D.C. When Guilt is Not Enough: Interdependent Self-Construal as Moderator of the Relationship Between Guilt and Ethical Consumption in a Confucian Context. J Bus Ethics 161, 551–572 (2020).

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  • Guilt
  • Ethical consumption
  • Interdependent self-construal
  • Confucianism