California State University, Long Beach
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“Beyond Truth and Lies”

Published: December 15, 2015

Marketing’s Christine Kang has a passion for improving consumer welfare.

The new assistant professor, who recently defended her doctoral thesis “Beyond Truth and Lies” at the University of Michigan before joining CSULB this fall, wants to know more about how business providers and consumers engage in non-truthful communication.

“This includes deception and evasion, and I was especially interested in evasion,” said Kang, who was born in California but raised in South Korea. “In order to avoid embarrassment in a social comparison, you might engage in non-truthful communication with others. There has been research done that shows deception is a way to get around embarrassing social situations. Since deception could hurt morals, however, consumers might want to use another means to get around public embarrassment. I suggest that evasion, being ambiguous or avoidant of the facts, might be the way to go.”

Kang agrees that honesty has served its role as the best policy for consumers, in general, but evasion can help consumers deal with various threats when they find themselves in a social comparison situation. At the same time, she noted, evasion is not as bad as outright deception.

“In my thesis, I tried to show that evasion results in less guilt and shame being felt than when engaging in deception,” she said. “It is a way of avoiding the experience of negative emotions to a greater extent when you evade rather than deceive. I’m not suggesting you should be evasive. It is just another way to get around some of the situations we face as consumers.”

For instance, she suggested, say Kang bought a quality printer for a bargain price before discovering a colleague bought the same printer for less–much less.

“If I were asked how much I paid for my printer, I wouldn’t want to look dumb as a shopper,” she said. “I might lie and say I paid the same price as my colleague. Or, I could change the subject rather than telling how much I paid. I could be evasive.”

Kang is embarrassed to admit that, from time to time, she has engaged in non-truthful communication. “But I have always experienced an internal struggle about how to be more truthful,” she said. “The struggle in myself naturally touched my research domain.”

Evasion can be a useful tool for a consumer, a means to reaching a goal and that is especially true when it comes to financial gain.

“Say you’re talking to a sales representative at a clothing store and you want to return a purchase,” she said. “You don’t like it anymore. There is no other real reason. You could lie and say the size was wrong. But evasion is an alternative.”

Evasion is most useful when dealing with face-to-face communication. “It doesn’t do much with billboards or Robo-calls,” Kang said. “If the interaction partner is persistent in wanting to get the answer and there is the possibility of detecting evasion, the evasion goes down. In the context of online communication, the risk of evasion detection goes up because everything is written down. Evasion is influenced by the nature of the communication. Face-to-face communication is the place where evasion would work the best.”

Christine Kang
PHOTO BY JOE PHILIPSON
Christine Kang

While not proven empirically, she acknowledges there are cultural variations in national attitudes toward evasion and deception. “For instance, the Japanese are known to guard their feelings. In their case, evasion might be an emotional norm,” she said. “There are societies that view emotional openness as foolish.”

Kang wants her research to improve consumer welfare, yet there is a debate within consumer research about who ought to benefit, the consumers or the marketers. “The field is tilting toward consumers,” said Kang. “My research is often based on my personal experience as a consumer. The struggles and challenges I face every day motivate my research.”

Knowing what she knows about evasion has even affected the way Kang dines.

“I once studied the consequences of being evasive,” she recalled. “The person who was being evasive wasn’t a consumer. It was a waiter. I assessed the consumer’s response to a waiter’s evasion about the menu and I found that consumers did NOT favor evasive communication. They wanted the waiter to give them a definitive answer. When the waiter replied evasively, consumers punished the waiter by lowering their tip.”

Kang feels it is her responsibility as a scholar to make her students’ better consumers and encourages them to bring their personal consuming experiences into the classroom,” she said. “I want to help my students develop a framework they can use when they are making purchase decisions,” she said.

Kang encourages everyone to learn as much as they can about what makes a good consumer.

“There are so many factors in a decision to purchase something,” she concluded. “We are not consciously aware of all the ambient factors that affect the decision to buy. Consumer behavior research has much to offer us all to help us be aware of the consequences of good and bad consumption.”