Engaging in Moral Licensing

Dan Ariely to the rescue once again. It was getting late in the evening, and I didn’t yet have a viable idea for a blog post. I knew that Dan usually has a post every other Saturday in the Wall Street Journal, and I didn’t think he had one last week.

So I logged into my online WSJ account, and lo and behold, there was Dan’s column that would appear in tomorrow’s paper edition. Usually, but not always, Dan’s column provides me with something to write about, and fortunately that was the case tonight.

Here is the letter someone wrote to Dan:

I recently lost my wallet while shopping at the mall. Once I got it back, I realized that the person who returned it had stolen all the money and returned only my driver’s license and credit card. Here’s what I don’t get: How could a person doing such a kind act also do something so immoral?

And here is Dan’s reply:

The basic principle operating here is what psychologists call “moral licensing.” Sometimes when we do a good deed, we feel an immediate boost to our self-image. Sadly, that also makes us less concerned with the moral implications of our next actions. After all, if we are such good, moral people, don’t we deserve to act a bit selfishly? Moral licensing operates across many areas of life. After we recycle our trash from lunch, we’re more likely to buy non-green products. After we go to the gym, we’re more likely to order a double cheeseburger. This is probably why the person who found your wallet and decided to return it felt justified in taking your cash.

I had never heard of the term “moral licensing”, but it certainly sounded like the type of behavior I have engaged in quite often. After a good workout, I’ll convince myself that I’ve earned the right to pick up a couple of donuts; if I’ve had a productive day at work, I’ll feel entitled to waste some time on Facebook or YouTube later on. (OK, who am I kidding; I’ll waste time on Facebook and YouTube even if I didn’t have a productive day, otherwise I’d never get to spend time on social media.)

I decided to look more into it, looking up moral licensing in Wikipedia. It actually goes by another name, self-licensing.

Here is how a couple of researchers describe the effect:

Researchers Uzma Khan and Ravi Dhar describe the phenomena as follows:

The moral licensing effect is a non conscious effect that operates by providing a moral boost in the self-concept, which increases the preference for a relative immoral action subsequently by dampening the negative self attributions associated with such behavior. Prior choices that activate and boost the self-concept, are likely to subsequently license more self-indulgent choices…Licensing can operate through an expression of the intent to be virtuous, which reduces negative self-attributions associated with the purchase of relative luxuries.

Similarly, Anna Merritt and colleagues have explained that:

Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.

The Wikipedia article then goes on to offer many examples of moral licensing. I thought it would be helpful to share these examples since I am sure many of us have been engaged in such moral licensing.

  • We drink Diet Coke – with Quarter Pounders and fries at McDonald’s.
  • We go to the gym – and ride the elevator to the second floor.
  • We install tankless water heaters – then take longer showers.
  • We drive SUVs to see Al Gore’s speeches on global warming.
  • In a research study, participants who thought they had been given a multivitamin (which are often perceived as providing health benefits) were more likely to:
    • be predisposed to smoking more cigarettes
    • more likely to believe that they were invulnerable to harm, injury, and disease
    • less likely to exercise and to choose healthier food
    • had a higher desire to engage in “hedonic activities that involve instant gratification but pose long-term health hazards”, such as casual sex, sunbathing, wild parties, and excessive drinking.
  • In another study, participants were first asked to select from a list a charity organizations for which they would willingly volunteer three hours a week. Later, these people—and participants who hadn’t been asked to volunteer—were asked whether they would buy designer jeans or an identically priced vacuum cleaner, assuming that they had enough money to buy only one. Participants who were asked to imagine having committed the charitable act before shopping were more than twice as likely to choose the jeans. (the implications for influencing consumer shopping habits seem enormous…)
  • Another study found that people who bought green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products.
  • Research has found that consumers who opt for energy-efficient products increase their energy usage so as to offset any potential gains. One study showed that after getting high-efficiency washers, consumers increased clothes washing by nearly 6 percent. Other studies have shown that people leave energy-efficient lights on longer than conventional lights, and that many people who make their homes more energy efficient turn their heating up and ultimately see no reduction in energy costs.
  • A research study showed that an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election made his supporters more likely to express views that favored Whites at the expense of African-Americans. Essentially, the endorsement made people feel like they had shown that they were not biased, giving them a license to subsequently express racially prejudicial views.

I’m guessing you may have recognized some of these behaviors as your own.

It’s a fascinating phenomenon; it seems like we like we are almost sub-consciously programmed to keep a balance between good and bad behavior. Perhaps secretly we are all prone to less than ideal behavior, and so to make ourselves feel OK about such poor behavior, we occasionally do something good to justify such bad behavior that we know is going to happen at some point. And so it may be that without moral licensing we would never do anything good.

And if you’ve gotten this far, I don’t know if that means reading my blog is your good deed for the day (it certainly makes me happy knowing you’ve read this far), and so now you can do something decadent.

Or perhaps you’ve done your good deed for the day before you’ve read this, and reading my post is the type of behavior you’re going to regret as soon as you’ve finished the blog.

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