Consequences of moral transgressions: How regulatory focus orientation motivates or hinders moral decoupling

Kirsten Cowan, A. Yazdanparast

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How can firms mitigate the impact of moral violations on consumer evaluations? This question has pervaded the business ethics literature. Though prior research has identified decoupling as a moral reasoning strategy where consumers separate moral judgments from evaluations (avoiding moral compromise and dissonance), it is unclear what motivates individuals to decouple. It is the objective of this research to explore regulatory focus theory (i.e. a framework examining consumer mindsets as prevention or promotion orientated) as a motivating factor for moral decoupling. Three experiments are undertaken. Study one demonstrates that with a prevention mindset (e.g. analytical thinking) as opposed to promotion mindset (e.g. feeling-based thinking), moral decoupling can be achieved. Specifically, those in a prevention mindset report more favorable evaluations when information about a violation explicitly lowers (vs. does not lower) consequences of moral violations. However, when the violation is related to the business functionality of the brand, those in a prevention (vs. promotion) mindset report less favorable evaluations, except when consequences are lowered. This indicates an inability to decouple (studies 2-3), and results in negative emotions (study 3). The research shows that inability to decouple for those in a prevention mindset leads to negative emotions, lowering evaluations. These results contribute to the moral reasoning literature by linking regulatory focus to decoupling strategies. Further, the research bridges literatures on norm activation, moral foundation, regulatory focus, and moral decoupling to reconcile theoretical differences in judgment styles. Implications for businesses and brands are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-18
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Early online date4 Sep 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Sep 2019


  • moral reasoning
  • moral decoupling
  • moral foundations
  • regulatory focus
  • political brands
  • consumer judgment


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