Musings on the complicated business of thinking

Why Moral Self-Regulation Makes Your Brain Happy

We all play a daily balancing act, even if we don't realize it.

This article is an adapted excerpt from my newly released book, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite.

Elton is a philanthropist who specializes in raising funds to support children's hospitals all over the world. In some cases, he works with local agencies to develop business plans to build a new hospital, often in a third world country where it is desperately needed. In other cases he works directly with potential funders to help them identify hospitals in need of support and work through the logistics of making sure the money is used effectively.

Over the last 15 or so years, he has helped raise nearly one billion dollars for children's hospitals in 50 countries—the equivalent of helping more than 100,000 children get the vital care they needed and would not have received without a fully functioning children's hospital in their region.

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Ethical questions crop up during the course of Elton's work. Certain investors aren't as interested in supporting children's health as they are in courting favor with local authorities, who, in light of the investments being made, are often more willing to overlook less commendable things the investors are involved in. Sometimes this means waving regulations, reducing taxes and fees, or, in more extreme cases, ignoring blatantly illegal activity.

The philanthropist is usually aware that these things are happening, and sometimes his fee gets a boost if the activity in question is especially sordid. He knows, of course, why he's getting more money, and he could turn it down. In fact, he could stop the deal altogether or at least refuse to participate.

He doesn't. In his mind, the scale is balanced. If he didn't participate in the deals, the children's hospitals wouldn't be built and maintained. If he ignores unethical behavior, and even occasionally takes what amounts to a bribe to keep quiet, that's ok, because on the other side of the see saw he is doing noble work.

Elton's thinking and behavior illustrates what psychologists in recent research have dubbed the "moral self-regulation effect"—the tendency to conduct a balancing act in our lives by doing something moral in one case to offset doing something wrong (or doing nothing at all) in another. When we do a moral act to offset an immoral one, we are engaged in "moral cleansing." When we do nothing, or perhaps something perceived as immoral (because we feel like we have enough in the moral bank account to get away with it) we are engaged in "moral licensing."

A great deal of "green" marketing is predicated on the assumption that people will buy a green product to make themselves feel better about moral deficiencies in other parts of their lives. Other forms of green messaging, such as expensive hotels asking patrons to reuse bath towels, use this same dynamic; nothing is offered to the patron in return for not using the towels other than a feeling of "doing good for the environment"—a feeling that will offset a sense of moral deficiency for not recycling at home, as an example. (The hotel, meanwhile, benefits from reduced costs which add directly to its bottom line.)

The subtlety of this effect is on the level of background noise—it's happening all the time and we rarely give it a second thought. The important point to remember is that we use mechanisms like moral self-regulation to gain balance and feel more at-ease with our place in an uncertain world. Balance makes the brain happy, and feeling at-ease is whipped cream on the sundae.

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.


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