Our moral thermostat – why being good can give people license to misbehave

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What happens when you remember a good deed, or think of yourself as a stand-up citizen? You might think that your shining self-image would reinforce the value of selflessness and make you more likely to behave morally in the future. But a new study disagrees.

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Through three psychological experiments, Sonya Sachdeva from Northwestern University found that people who are primed to think well of themselves behave less altruistically than those whose moral identity is threatened. They donate less to charity and they become less likely to make decisions for the good of the environment.

Sachdeva suggests that the choice to behave morally is a balancing act between the desire to do good and the costs of doing so – be they time, effort or (in the case of giving to charities) actual financial costs. The point at which these balance is set by our own sense of self-worth. Tip the scales by threatening our saintly personas and we become more likely to behave selflessly to cleanse our tarnished perception. Do the opposite, and our bolstered moral identity slackens our commitment, giving us a license to act immorally. Having established our persona as a do-gooder, we feel less impetus to bear the costs of future moral actions.

It’s a fascinating idea. It implies both that we have a sort of moral thermostat, and that it’s possible for us to feel “too moral”. Rather than a black-and-white world of heroes and villains, Sachdeva paints a picture of a world full of “saintly sinners and sinning saints”.

In her first experiment, Sachdeva asked 46 students to copy a list of nine words that were either positive (“caring”, “generous” or “kind”), negative (“disloyal”, “greedy” or “selfish”) or neutral (“book”, “keys” or “house”). The recruits were told that they had signed up for a study on the psychology of handwriting, and they had to write a story about themselves that included all of the words they saw. They then completed a filler task, after which they were asked if they wanted to make a small donation to a charity of their choice.

Sachdeva found that the students who described themselves with positive words gave the least to charity – a measly $1.07. That was less than the average $2.71 donations of the group that used the neutral words, and about a fifth as much as the $5.30 contributions given by the negative-word group.

Of course, the volunteers’ essays may not actually have affected their moral identity. Indeed, they had a tendency to use the positive words to describe themselves, but the negative ones to portray someone else in their lives. To control for that, Sachdeva repeated the experiment with another group of 39 students but this time, she randomly told them to write specifically about either themselves or someone they knew.

Among those who described other people, the nature of the words they used had no significant bearing on the amount of money they donated. But among the group who wrote about themselves, those who described themselves positively gave less to charity ($1.11) than those whose choice of words were negative ($5.56). It seems that a person’s propensity for selflessness changes when their self-image shifts.

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A third experiment supported that idea. After completing the same task as before, 46 students were led to what they believed was a second unrelated study. They were role-playing as the manager of a manufacturing plant, which was facing pressure from environmental lobbyists to reduce the pollutants from its smokestacks using expensive air filters. Other managers had agreed to run them for 60% of the time.

Amid a smokescreen of general questions, Sachdeva asked the volunteers to say how often they themselves would run the filters for. Their answers showed the same trend as the first experiment.

Those who saw the negative words were extra-cooperative, running the filters for 73% of the time. The neutral group ran the filters 67% of the time. And the positive-word group were the least cooperative, running them just 56% of the time. They, in particular, were more likely to think that the plant’s profits outweighed environmental concerns. However, when Sachdeva asked them to predict what proportion of the other managers would stick to the 60% agreement, the three groups gave similar answers. Again, it was their own self-image that mattered.

In all three studies, Sachdeva believes that her story-telling task psychologically primed the volunteers with positive or negative traits. They either wanted to cleanse themselves morally, or felt they had license to kick back a bit and let their wicked side out.

Other groups have found similar results before. In 1969, Merrill Carlsmith and Alan Gross found that people are more compliant to a researcher’s requests if they had previously been forced to deliver painful (and fake) electric shocks to a (pretend) victim (but not if they just watched this happening). Their motive was to alleviate their own personal guilt, for they behaved in the same way even if the researcher was apparently unaware of their wrongdoing and even if their act of restitution had no impact on the shocked victim. I’ve also blogged before about situations where people will prefer cleaning products and will physically clean themselves if they remembered a past misdeed.

Sachdeva also cites several studies which have found that ethical behaviour provides a license for laxer morality. People who can establish their identity as a non-prejudiced person, by contradicting sexist statements or hiring someone from an ethnic minority, become more likely to make prejudiced choices later.

There are many potentially fascinating ways of expanding on this study. For example, it would be interesting to see if asking people to remember many instances where they behaved ethically would produce a stronger license to misbehave than recalling just a single good deed. 

Even better, you could see if changing a person’s self-image would affect their tendency to cheat in psychological games. That would tell us whether moral licensing gives people an excuse to avoid actively doing good deeds, or whether it actually increases the chances of immoral behaviour, perhaps by lowering the bar for what is deemed acceptable. Do people just avoid being good or would they actively be bad?

Sachdeva is also interested in the types of situations where people seem to break free of this self-regulating loop of morality, and where good behaviour clearly begets more good behaviour. For example, many social or political activists drop out of their causes after some cursory participation, but others seem to draw even greater fervour. Why?

Sachdeva has two explanations. The first deals with habits – many selfless actions become more routine with time (recycling, for one). As this happens, the effort involved lessens, the “costs” seem smaller, and the potential for moral licensing fades. The second explanation relates to the standards that people set for themselves. Those who satisfy their moral goals award themselves with a license to disengage more easily, but those who hold themselves to loftier standards are more likely to stay the course.

Update: Janet Stemwedel has a typically eloquent response to this study, and what it means for scientists. I’d highly recommend a read.

Reference: Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. (2009). Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02326.x

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