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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

The “Moral Licensing” effect

In a previous post I looked at research on “ego depletion” and “low willpower” (eg exhausted “self-control” type metaphors). This one casts a glance at the “moral licensing” effect…

‘Moral licence’ refers to our increased tendency to act ‘immorally’ if we’ve already displayed our ‘moral’ rectitude. For example, one pioneering study showed that people are more likely to express racial prejudice, sexism, etc, “when their past behavior has established their credentials as nonprejudiced persons.”

Another study found that people give less to charity if they’ve just thought about themselves in terms of positive traits (Sachdeva, Iliev, Medin; 2009). Another showed that folks are more likely to cheat in a maths test if they’ve just recalled a time when they acted morally (Jordan, Mullen & Murnighan; 2011). Yet another found that “people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products”.

The list of research is quite long – it seems a well-established phenomenon. (Several examples are mentioned in this meta-study/review).

‘Self-control’, ‘Willpower’, etc

What does moral licensing have to do with “willpower”? Consider the report of soaring sales of Big Macs after McDonald’s added healthier items to its menu. As Kelly McGonigal (in Maximum Willpower) puts it:

“whenever we have conflicting desires, being good gives us permission to be a little bit bad. Importantly, this is not just a matter of running out of blood sugar or willpower. When psychologists ask people about their licensed indulgences, the indulgers report feeling in control of their choices, not out of control. […]”

“most people think of all forms of self-control as a moral test. Giving in to dessert, sleeping late, carrying credit card debt – we use them to determine whether we are being good or bad.” (McGonigal, Kelly; Maximum Willpower. Macmillan)

We might think of it as a reasonable balancing of the “good” and “bad” (eg the healthy & unhealthy), but it often doesn’t work out that way. The aura of goodness (eg the mere thought of eating a salad, a good intention) is apparently enough to ‘license’ us to indulge (or act immorally) – as long as that prior moral goodness is our own (the research consistently shows little or no licensing effect when subjects are simply “primed” with thoughts of moral behaviour unassociated with their own actions).

Thus, moral licensing apparently ‘tricks’ us into acting against our “best interests” while we’re framing things in terms of ‘self-control’. A popular metaphor for this process is ‘self-sabotage’.

‘Highbrow’ vs ‘Lowbrow’ consumer choice

Many of our spending decisions seem tinged with morality. Buying frivolous or luxury items comes with feelings of guilt and “self-indulgence”. According to moral licensing logic, decisions which establish a person’s ethical credentials should provide a licence for indulgence. Some research seems to support this:

“We show that prior choices, which activate and boost the self-concept, are likely to subsequently license more self-indulgent choices. We propose that licensing can operate through an expression of intent to be virtuous, which reduces negative self-attributions associated with the purchase of relative luxuries.” (Khan & Dhar, 2005:  ‘Licensing Effect in Consumer Choice’)

In a later study (Khan & Dhar, 2007), participants chose a free film rental from a list containing both ‘highbrow’ (eg Schindler’s List) and ‘lowbrow’ (eg Bruce Almighty) films. A separate group had rated the highbrow films as more virtuous. It turned out that participants were more likely to choose a ‘lowbrow’ film if they were aware that the same choice would be repeated in a week’s time (relative to participants who were not aware of the future choice). Here’s how the authors of the study explain this:

“Our account proposed that the optimistic belief in one’s ability to choose a virtuous option in the future reduces the anticipated guilt arising from not exercising self-control and choosing a vice in the present.” (Khan & Dhar, 2007; ‘The Effect of Future Choices on Self-control’)

Whore-addicted Christian evangelists &
Passive-aggressive campaigners

Some occupations have a built-in supply of moral righteousness. So, who can blame the evangelical Christian pastor who ended up robbing banks to fund his addiction to expensive whores (true story). Or the ‘zero tolerance’ cop gone bad? Or the adulterous ‘family values’ politician, etc?

Incidentally, self-discipline and self-control top the hierarchy of moral importance in the conservative “strict father”, or “authoritarian”, moral framing system. I wrote about this here. I won’t draw any inferences about this with regard to moral licensing. I just mention it in passing…

On the other hand, I think of the unpleasant ‘passive-aggressive’ behaviour of certain altruistic, compassionate campaigning groups who wear their altruistic compassion like a badge. Again, no inferences drawn, and mentioning no names. I’m probably just imagining it.

Moral Licence vs Cognitive Dissonance

All of this brings up a tricky question: When does previous ‘moral’ behaviour license, and when does it constrain people to act consistently with those past ‘good’ actions? Cognitive dissonance theory would seem to predict the opposite of moral licensing – ie that people feel uncomfortable acting in a way that’s inconsistent with how they already view themselves.

Merritt, Effron & Monin (2010) suggest that it depends on whether the previous ‘moral’ behaviour is framed as “commitment” (eg to a task we identify with) or “progress” (on a task we’re obligated to do) – with the former being less likely to result in moral licensing. They cite the classic 1975 study (Miller, Brickman and Bolen) which found that children who were told repeatedly that they were “tidy” littered less than a group who were told that they should be tidy. They comment: “It appears that the labeling made children feel committed to neatness rather than licensed to litter”.

A different way of putting it is provided by Kelly McGonigal:

“Moral licensing turns out to be, at its core, an identity crisis. We only reward ourselves for good behaviour if we believe that who we really are is the self that wants to be bad. From this point of view, every act of self-control is a punishment, and only self-indulgence is a reward. Moving beyond moral licensing requires knowing that who we are is the self that wants the best for us – and the self that wants to live in line with our core values. When this happens, we will no longer view the impulsive, lazy or easily tempted self as the “real” us. We will no longer act like someone who must be bribed, tricked or forced to pursue our goals, and then rewarded for making any effort at all.” (McGonigal, Kelly; Maximum Willpower. Macmillan)

Did you get that? “Identity crisis”, “Who we really are”, “the self that wants to be bad” vs “the self that wants the best for us”? If it’s not confusing enough already, let me quote gratuitously from Lakoff & Johnson on the ‘structure of the subject-self metaphor system’:

‘Our metaphoric conceptions of inner life have a hierarchical structure. At the highest level, there is a general Subject-Self metaphor, which conceptualizes a person as bifurcated [forked, in two parts]. The exact nature of this bifurcation is specified more precisely one level down, where there are five specific instances of the metaphor.’ (Philosophy in the Flesh, by Lakoff & Johnson).

Okay, that’s enough of that for now. But you get an idea of where this is headed…

Meanwhile, here’s Paul Calf reflecting on self-control:

Written by NewsFrames

August 22, 2012 at 8:37 am

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