A recent study provided still more evidence of the very human tendency to engage in “moral licensing.” It found people who reported doing a good deed in the morning—and thereby solidified their self-image as admirably virtuous—were more likely to engage in unethical behavior later that day.
While this largely unconscious dynamic is hardly something to be proud of, newly published research suggests it is amazingly easy to set into motion. It finds that merely thinking about performing a socially responsible act—say, by expressing willingness to participate in an upcoming blood drive—gives people implicit permission to engage in one form of hurtful behavior: indulging in normally repressed racist tendencies.
In their own minds, at least, people “gain moral credits for actions they anticipate doing,” Florida State University psychologists Jessica Cascio and E. Ashby Plant write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “Thus, simply planning to do good can allow you to be bad now.”
"If people can give themselves credit for what they think they will do, they can maintain their self-perceptions of morality while engaging in moral acts."
Cascio and Plant describe four studies that provide evidence of such behavior. One featured 94 college undergraduates. Nearly 80 percent of the participants were white; the others were of other non-black races, including Hispanic and Asian.
About two-thirds of the participants began the session by being asked “Would you be willing to donate blood if we held a blood drive within the next few weeks?” The 25 who answered yes were designated as the “moral” group. Twenty-nine others were asked a different question entirely, one that did not involve an ethical choice; another 27 were not given a request and placed in the “control” category.
All then completed the Attitude Towards Blacks scale, a 20-item questionnaire that measures explicit racism. Using a one-to-seven scale, they expressed their agreement, or lack thereof, with statements such as “I would rather not have blacks like in the same apartment building I live in” and “Generally, blacks are not as smart as whites.”
The results: Those in the “moral” group “expressed significantly more prejudice” than those in the other two categories (which did not differ significantly from one another).
“The fact that anticipating donating blood in the future licensed even overtly prejudiced responses in the present suggests that prospective moral licensing provides moral credits that people may use to justify expressing racial prejudice in the short term,” the researchers conclude.
Very similar results were found in the other three studies, two of which measured implicit racism, while the third used a different test of explicit racial stereotyping.
It all suggests that “prospective moral licensing may allow people to reap the same benefits as other forms of moral licensing, without putting in any actual moral work,” Cascio and Plant write. “If people can give themselves credit for what they think they will do, they can maintain their self-perceptions of morality while engaging in moral acts.”
The results are depressing for a couple of reasons. First, they suggest that racist beliefs remain something of a default stance for many Americans—something we know we shouldn’t do, and strive to avoid, but feel free to indulge in under certain circumstances. Second, they show how little effort is required to give ourselves permission to act in immoral ways.
One good turn may deserve another, but in reality, it very often leads people to move in the opposite direction.