Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

I’m good, so I’m allowed to be bad

November 29th, 2010

You’ve just spent the weekend volunteering on a new project. There’s a cause that needs help and you’ve taken time you couldn’t really spare to chip in. It’s cost you a bit of money as well as time, but you’re proud of what you did and you know it will make a difference to the people it’s meant to help.

At the end of the weekend, you’re enjoying a warm sense of accomplishment when you get a call from a relative who wants you to help with a family event in a few weeks. You don’t care much for the event (or, come to think of it, the relative). You could plausibly claim to be too busy, although that will cause more work for somebody else. Do you lie and say you’re too busy to help?

You might. But what’s interesting is that your weekend volunteering makes you more willing to lie.

Crossed fingers IIt’s counterintuitive, but a phenomenon called “moral self-licensing” means that doing a good deed gives us an internal sense of permission to stop being good for a while. It’s as though we subconsciously think, “I’m off the hook!”

A recent study by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong demonstrated the effect. After confirming that their study participants perceived the purchase of “green” products to be an indicator of moral behaviour, they randomly assigned individuals to choose items from either a list of conventional products or a list that included mostly green products. Then they asked the participants to play an anonymous game involving the sharing of money. They found that those players who had previously purchased green products shared less money than those who had purchased conventional products did.

A second experiment took this further. People participated in a paid perception task in which lying about one’s observations meant greater pay. Those individuals who had previously bought green products were more likely to lie – and more likely to take more money than they had earned, given the opportunity.

It applies to bigger things, too. After expressing support for Barack Obama, participants in one study were more willing to describe a job as better suited for white people than for black people. In another study, people given the opportunity to disagree with blatantly sexist statements were later more willing to favour a man for a stereotypically male job.

This is useful information when we’re making personal choices but it’s also useful when attempting social change. If we ask too much of people at once, it’s likely to backfire as soon as they feel morally replete. Don’t ask for donations from tired volunteers or people who have just given elsewhere; focus on people who have given a little (see the previous post on the foot-in-the-door technique) or refused a larger request (the door-in-the-face technique). Space out your requests for help or contributions. Don’t expect much from the smug.

Can you think of any other useful applications? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

3 comments on 'I’m good, so I’m allowed to be bad'

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  1. Rob

    29 Nov 10 at 11:43 am

    I’m not convinced the examples are related behaviors – mostly because I’m me, though. Related to volunteering: when I’ve done some volunteer thing and appreciated what my time and effort could produce I’m more willing to tell people no. Absolutely. I’m not going to another bridal shower for the rest of my life, but if you need a hand at the food pantry, call me.

    I think the second example goes to the heart of our secret prejudices. Everyone has them. Few of us own up to them, but they’re most evident when people believe they’re acting virtuously. An example: in the blogosphere, one reads the writings of men, usually white and progressive, who are spot-on politically until it comes to their individual blind spot – women, black people, poverty. Their reaction is always the same. Bless my buttons, what are you upset about? But that’s what happens when they get caught.

    As for the bigger things: I don’t know how you can have jobs better suited to white or black people, or how one should respond to study questions like that other than getting up and walking out.

    Finally: I’m smug and I do stuff. What about that, eh?


    Carol Reply:

    The problems with using oneself as a counterexample are (1) we all think we’re less influenced by these patterns than we are, and (2) the results of psychology studies show tendencies among a population rather than absolute behaviours in an individual. But I know you already know this.

    Regarding related behaviours, one study found that affirming one’s own humanitarian character resulted in lower charitable donations and less cooperative behaviour in decision-making. You wear your smug much better than most.

    You’re right about secret prejudices being most visible when we believe we’re being virtuous, but I see that as another facet of moral self-licensing: feeling self-congratulatory tends to reduce the effort we would otherwise make to rein in and not act on those prejudices.

    (And no, the jobs described in the study weren’t better suited to anybody, but the question showed whether prejudice was present. I don’t know how many subjects got up and walked out.)


  2. Rob

    30 Nov 10 at 9:11 am

    You wear your smug much better than most.

    It’s the Miss Sorghum Festival 1978 sash. Goes with everything!


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