There isevidence that supports the notion that people are more likely to “misbehave”after they engages in what they perceives as ethical/moral conduct. The theory, called “moral self-licensing”, predicts that people make note of theirgood behaviors and tend to act contrary to this soon thereafter.
Anexperiment in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reported that peoplewho expressed their support for presidential candidate Barack Obama were morelikely to later declare that whites would be better suited than blacks for ahypothetical job vacancy in a police department. It seems that their support for a backcandidate won them “credit as non-racists”, and provided them with a “licenseto discriminate” in subsequent task.
The clearestlesson for all of us is that we should be “on guard” with respect to our ownactions. We should recognize that our ownmoral acts may make us more likely to feel that we have earned the right (morallicense) to act selfishly, discriminatory toward others or immorally. Self-awareness is the key to avoiding thistrap.
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. We review research on this moral self-licensing effect in the domains of political correctness, prosocial behavior, and consumer choice. We also discuss remaining theoretical tensions in the literature: Do good deeds reframe bad deeds (moral credentials) or merely balance them out (moral credits)? When does past behavior liberate and when does it constrain? Is self-licensing primarily for others’ benefit (self-presentational) or is it also a way for people to reassure themselves that they are moral people? Finally, we propose avenues for future research that could begin to address these unanswered questions.
Social andPersonality Psychology Compass 4/5 (2010): 344–357
Anna C. Merritt*, Daniel A. Effron, and Benoıˆt Monin Stanford University
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