Moral Self-Licensing

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Moral self-licensing is the name for a human tendency to feel a certain license to misbehave after performing a moral act. We seem wired with a moral thermostat:

In the run-up to the 2008 US presidential election, for instance, Monin found that people who expressed their support for Barack Obama, thereby winning credit as non-racists, were more likely to later declare that whites would be better suited than blacks for a hypothetical job vacancy in a police department (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 45, p 590).

As you might imagine, “green” consumers feel they’ve earned a “pass” for bad behavior:

Students were asked to fill their online shopping baskets with up to $25-worth of items, and half were presented with a store stocked mostly with “green” products — compact fluorescent instead of incandescent light bulbs, for instance — to make it more likely that they would shop green. The other half were given a store stocked with a majority of conventional products.

After their online shopping spree, the students were asked to carry out one of two tasks.

One group was told to allocate $6 between themselves and another participant. Mazar and Zhong found that green shoppers in this group kept more for themselves than the others did.

The most striking results, however, came from the group that carried out the second task. Students were shown a pattern of dots and asked to say whether more fell to the left or the right of a diagonal line. They were told they would get half a cent each time they said more dots were on the left, but 5¢ each time they said more were on the right — providing a clear incentive to lie about the results to earn more money.

Those who played the game both accurately and truthfully would make $2.07. The winnings of those who had shopped in the conventional store did not differ significantly from this sum. The green shoppers, however, earned on average 36¢ more, showing that they had lied to boost their income.

Finally, the volunteers in the second group were shown on screen how much they had won and told to take the right amount of cash from an envelope. Both groups took more than their due, but the green shoppers on average stole 48¢ more than those who had shopped in the conventional store. “It’s a very impressive paper,” says Monin.


  1. Schiller Thurkettle says:

    All of this makes a great deal of common sense.

    This invites the question of whether people are aware of this at some level, and do green or other things for the purpose of gaining self-license. So, for instance, one who wishes to indulge in vandalism could gain a moral self-license for that activity by eating a vegan diet.

    Or, one could shop at an organic grocery store to the same end. This of course places the organic grocery store in the position of selling moral licenses. Which also makes appalling sense.

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