Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project

Do You Buy Green? Refrain from Nagging? Embody Virtue? Better Watch Yourself!

Moments of “moral self-licensing”?

Posted Apr 10, 2010

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in -- no need to catch up, just jump in right now.

One interesting aspect of human nature is our tendency to pat ourselves on the back for being good, and then turn around and do something bad.

This kind of behavior may be caused by the belief that you’re so righteous, the ordinary rules shouldn’t apply to you, or that because you’ve done the right thing in one area, you’ve earned the right to ease up on yourself.

Research in several areas demonstrates this kind of effect – known as “moral self-licensing” or “moral credentials.”

For example, one study showed that people who bought “green” items felt a moral glow that led them to be more likely to cheat and act selfishly. Along the same lines, a study from the U.K. showed that people who made their homes more energy efficient were more apt to turn up their heat or to keep it on longer.

In what he called “Pay or Pray,” economist Jonathan Gruber discovered found that when the tax code changed in the early 1990s to make deductions for charitable giving more valuable, the average churchgoer gave more money — and attended services less frequently. (Gruber had become curious about this question when, after being elected treasurer of his synagogue in New Jersey, his father remarked, “Good, now I don’t have to go.”)

This frequently pops up in ordinary life when people reward themselves for exercising by eating. “I went to the gym, so I deserve to eat a scone.” “I went for a run this morning, so I can afford to have dessert.” (If they’re exercising in order to control their weight, this is very counter-intuitive impulse!)

On a larger moral view, a study that showed that people who consider themselves very moral can become very bad cheats, because they believe their high virtue exempts them from the rules that apply to ordinary folk. It’s not difficult to think of examples of people who considered themselves to be highly moral, but made extremely immoral choices, or considered themselves to be very honest, but then cheated or lied in some shocking way.

I know just when this arises in my own life. I’ll be feeling smug about some moment of forbearance with my children. I’ll be patting myself on the back for resisting the urge to nag or criticize. Then five minutes later, I’ll feel like no one should cross The Perfect Mommy, and I’ll start yelling!

Of course, one of my Secrets of Adulthood is The opposite of a great truth is also true. It’s also true that doing good makes us feel good – it gives us a “warm glow” – and therefore we want to do even better (known as the warm glow effect.) Sometimes resisting nagging gives me a warm glow that allows me to be much more loving.

How about you? Have you ever fallen into moments of “moral self-licensing”? Or been buoyed in your good efforts by the “warm glow”?

* I love to pull April Fools' Day pranks on my daughters, so I got a big kick out of this math professor's trick on his students. I especially enjoyed it because I'm such a huge fan of J. M. Barrie and his masterpiece Peter Pan. (Watch the video and you'll see the connection.)

* The book The Happiness Project has been bouncing around the New York Times bestseller list for FOURTEEN WEEKS now – including hitting #1! Yay! You can...
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