Moral Licensing and How Good Deeds Make Us Do Bad Deeds

Be stingy with praise for moral behaviour, Robin Hanson suggests, as by doing so people will strive to be more moral to win more difficult-to-obtain praise.

In support of this “stingy school of thought on moral praise”, Hanson points to studies of contradictory behaviour known as “moral licensing”: these studies show how small, seemingly moral acts prevent us from doing further good deeds and may actually increase the odds of us doing immoral deeds.

It seems that we have a good/bad balance sheet in our heads that we’re probably not even aware of. For many people, doing good makes it easier — and often more likely — to do bad. It works in reverse, too: Do bad, then do good. […]

From a theoretical perspective, the research has shown that “it’s like we can withdraw from our moral bank accounts,” [Benoît Monin, a social psychologist who studies moral licensing at Stanford University] said. “It’s a lens through which you see the rest of your behavior. But it may not even be conscious.”

This seemingly contradictory behavior is all around us, but it is probably most apparent, and easy to lampoon, in the greening of America. […]

People who bought green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products. […] After getting high-efficiency washers, consumers increased clothes washing by nearly 6 percent. Other studies show that people leave energy-efficient lights on longer. A recent study […] showed that of 500 people who had greened their homes, a third saw no reduction in bills. […]

Moral licensing behavior extends, in a different way, into dieting. […] People eat more chocolate while drinking Diet Coke than while drinking more sugary fare.

via @Ando_F



2 responses to “Moral Licensing and How Good Deeds Make Us Do Bad Deeds”

  1. Hello? Moral bank? I would like to make a withdrawal 😉

    But seriously – nice post. There is something to it, that we tend to do something bad easier when we did some good things lately (reaching for second cookie to my coffee 😉


  2. On the other hand, sometimes doing the bad things helps to build our character and create our identity. I don’t mean that we should strive to do bad things, but when we do and we regret them, we then learn from them.