- Humans have a way of explaining away their more questionable decisions by something called “moral compassing.”
- Psychologically, we believe we can balance out our less favourable actions because we have been good in the past.
- This phenomenon has been seen when highly respected or powerful people act in ways that contradict their public personas.
Most of us like to think our moral compass is more or less intact. If we do something wrong, we feel guilty, and say we won’t do it again.
However, we also tend to get into the habit of balancing out our good and bad decisions. We may tell ourselves that it’s ok we didn’t do any recycling this week, because we usually do. Or that it’s fine to have that second helping of cake because we went on a run yesterday.
This psychological bargaining is called “moral licensing” and it explains how when people initially behave in a moral way, they are more likely to display behaviours that are immoral, unethical, or problematic in other ways later.
In a study from Stanford University, which was published in the online journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass, the researchers write that moral licensing happens when individuals face the ethical uncertainties of social life.
“When under the threat that their next action might be (or appear to be) morally dubious, individuals can derive confidence from their past moral behaviour,” it reads. “Such that an impeccable track record increases their propensity to engage in otherwise suspect actions.”
In other words, when we are confident we have behaved well in the past, and our actions demonstrate compassion and generosity, we are more likely to explain away acts that are selfish, bigoted, or thoughtless.
Public figures carefully build up positive personas
However, it’s not only self-sabotaging behaviour — like cheating on a diet — that we explain away. Moral licensing behaviour can also have more severe impacts on others, like being discriminatory or abusive.
For example, as an article in Refinery29 points out, several men who claim to be liberal, or to be feminists, have recently been accused of sexually harassing or abusing women.
Harvey Weinstein donated millions of dollars to the Democratic party, and went to a Women’s March in January.
Louis C.K. supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and was often praised for his feminist style jokes about men being the ultimate danger to women. In 2012, he also released Tig Notaro’s comedy album, which sold 75,000 copies. In the New York Times exposé on C.K.’s actions, Notaro said she now thinks this was merely a way of covering his tracks.
In a study from 2001, three experiments were performed to see whether participants were more willing to behave in ways that could be seen as prejudiced when their past actions established themselves as not so.
In one of the experiments, participants who were given the opportunity to disagree with blatantly sexist statements were later more willing to select a man for a stereotypically male job.
In 2010, psychologists from Stanford University performed a study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The results showed that people who expressed support for president Obama were granted “moral credentials” from their actions, and were thus more likely to be racist or prejudiced afterwards.
Ultimately, anyone can fall victim to giving themselves excuses. The next time someone you admire or see as morally good behaves in a way that contradicts that, don’t be surprised.
Moral licensing helps remind us that someone’s actions can’t be excused by their past, no matter how much respect they have, or how untouchable they seem.
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