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The License to Vice

It’s 4 p.m. in the office, you hear the growling sounds coming from your stomach. As you are aware of the fact that it is too late for lunch and too early for dinner, you decide to take a walk to the vending machine, where you are confronted with an assortment of unhealthy, yet tasty, chocolate bars alongside relatively healthier items including fruits and granola bars. As you contemplate which product to purchase, you recall that you have eaten healthy food and exercised regularly in the preceding days, and decide to purchase the chocolate bar thinking that you have earned enough ‘credits’.


The given scenario evinces an overlooked aspect of decision-making: previous virtuous actions granting the right to do otherwise, an effect referred to as moral licensing in the literature. The converse effect, where the evocation of previous immoral actions/selves/intentions induces individuals to behave socially responsible, is widespread in prosocial contexts. In a famous experiment, Sachdeva et. al. (2009) asked participants to list nine morally positive or negative traits, after which participants were given a chance to donate some of the amount of the received money from participating in the experiment to a charitable organization. It is remarkable that, consistent with the moral licensing effect, the average donation of individuals listing their positive traits was $1.07, whereas for the control group it was $2.71. What is more remarkable, however, is the observation that individuals listing negative aspects chose to donate $5.30, as if they were compensating for feeling immoral, i.e. morally cleansing themselves.


The provided examples reveal that, unlike the assumption of traditional economic theory, in which past decisions do not have an effect in the evaluation of current choices, people are significantly affected by them. However, the question regarding the underlying mechanisms that explain the delineated tendencies still persist.


Looking Under the Hood: Our Moral Bank Accounts


The explanation provided by the experts state that it does not pose a big problem to commit immoral actions as long as it is offset by prior virtuous actions of similar magnitude. Accordingly, individuals have a cognitive moral bank account in which previous good deeds establish credits that can be withdrawn to ‘purchase’ the right to do otherwise. The vending machine exemplifies this phenomenon, whereby, the individual knows that eating tasty chocolate bars is unhealthy, but previous deeds of exercising regularly and eating healthily have substantially increased the health accounts’ value such that the individual has earned the right, i.e. the license to do vice, to eat unhealthily. The effect of behaviours on the account’s value is illustrated below (Graph 1).

Graph 1.

The graph emphasizes that previous virtuous actions increase the value of the account, and if the account value reaches above the expected average, the individual perceives him/herself to have a moral license and can perform activities that decrease the account value. Conversely, if the recollection of previous deeds gives the perception of underperforming in virtuous activities (the trough in the graph) in relation to his/her self-assessment of the correct amount (the average line in the graph), the underlying cognitive process induces the individual to partake in activities that increase the account value, i.e. cleanse him/herself. This occurrence is discernible in the self-trait example, where individuals who listed negative traits of themselves were given the perception that they are not as virtuous as they should be. Hence, to cleanse themselves they decided to donate almost twice as much as the control group. In a similar vein, for the positive trait group, the perception that they are overperforming in terms of virtuousness provided them a moral license, leading into a considerable decrease in the donation amount.


However, there remains yet another more general, though perhaps more important, question to be addressed: why did the donation amount change by so much more (35%) for the negative trait group? As we have highlighted in our post on valence-framing, the weights individuals give to negative and positive signs are skewed towards negative values, implying that negative values have the characteristic of being perceived as higher than an equivalent amount of positive value. In the pro-social experiment, the listing of negative traits can be thought of having a similar effect, increasing the donation amount disproportionately for positive and negative participants.


Adjusting the Sails: Implications for Non-Profit Organizations


When utilized correctly, the effects of moral licensing on pro-environmental and pro-social decisions can be influential. The examination of the underlying mechanism of licensing reveals that, since the past morally-laudable behaviour is perceived as providing a license to do otherwise, previous pro-environmental behaviour can inhibit future pro-environmental behaviour. Series of conducted experiments (Gholamzadehmir, 2019) concluded that people who received weekly feedback on their water consumption have substantially lowered their water use, however, they have also increased their electricity consumption, highlighting that moral licensing is in effect between categories of virtuous activities.


The key is to realize that there is not necessarily a trade-off in play, but actually a great potential for integration. The reason for individuals granting themselves licenses is that they view behaviours as an achievement of a goal, and the licensing provides them an opportunity to reward themselves. However, through effective framing and account integration, if the past behaviour is communicated in a way that it evokes that it is a progress towards the goal of sustainability, not the achievement of it, the problem of increasing pro-environmental behaviour in one category while decreasing it in another can be alleviated. However, whereas tackling moral licensing is useful for existing environmentalists, utilization of moral-cleansing will most probably be of high influence in actuating individuals who do not take part in pro-environmental actions.



References & Further Readings:


Gholamzadehmir, M., Sparks, P. and Farsides, T. (2019). Moral licensing, moral cleansing, and pro-environmental behaviour: The moderating role of pro-environmental attitudes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 65(), pp. 101-134.


Merritt, C. A., Effron, A. D. and Monin, B. (2010). Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad. Social and Personality Psychology, 4(5), pp. 344-357.


Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R. and Medin, D. L. (2009). Sinning saints and saintly sinners: The paradox of moral self-regulation. Psychological Science, 20(4), pp. 523-528.


Wilcox, K., Vallen, B., Block, L. and Fitzsimons, J. G. (2009). Vicarious goal fulfilment: When the mere presence of a healthy option leads to an ironically indulgent decision. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(3), pp. 380-393.

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