News flash - self righteous people may actually be jerks
I want to archive this article. I need to check out the studies it cites - I'm trying to get better about that - but this kind of instinctive moral justification for behavior, for good or ill, is something I've noticed without quantifying. I'm curious to see the statistics that might back up my observations. Considering the number of people who seem to rely on the "I'm a good Christian (or whatever), so whatever else I do must be alright", excuse for their nasty behaviors, I don't have much hope of being pleasantly surprised. Long winded way of saying, I fear that self-styled righteous people are jerks is a scientific fact.
(apologies if this doesn't LJ cut properly; it looks wonky on my screen)
http://www.smartmoney.com/spending/deals/buying-green-makes-you-do-bad-things/ Money and Your Mind by Ryan Sager (Author Archive)
Buying Green Makes You Do Bad Things
The market for “green,” environmentally-friendly products is big and getting bigger. Buying these products certainly seems to make a segment of the buying public feel good about itself. But even aside from the debate over whether green products are truly good for the environment, there’s something else about all this do-gooding that just feels… bad.
Do green products really make us better people? Does engaging in a virtuous act of consumption build on itself, making us more socially-conscious, in turn encouraging virtuous behavior in other areas of our lives? Or does buying these products make us feel better — but, in reality, make us act worse?
According to a new study, set to be published in the journal Psychological Science, the answer is — unsurprisingly for those of us with a cynical disposition toward human nature — the latter. While mere exposure to green products may “prime” us to think about social consciousness and perhaps improve our behavior, if we actually buy a green product, we appear to take it as license to act like jerks.
At least, that’s what researchers Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto found in the lab. In an experiment, they had student subjects look at products in one of two online stores: a “conventional” store (with few green products) and a “green” store (with lots of green products). Some of the students were asked to purchase goods in these stores; others were just asked to rate the products.
Things got interesting when these students were subsequently given $6 for an economic task and asked to share it with an unknown partner. The students who had purchased products in the green store, it turned out, were far less generous with the $6 than students who had merely been exposed to the green products.
A subsequent experiment pushed things even further. Students were again asked to shop in a green or a conventional store. They were then put through an experiment where they had the opportunity to earn extra money by cheating — even to steal money from an envelope left in the room. Consistent with the previous experiment, participants who had purchased from the green store were significantly more likely to cheat and to steal than participants who purchased from the conventional store.
So, what do the results of these experiments tell us? That environmentalists are jerks? That “good” people are all secretly frauds?
The answer’s a little more nuanced. While people’s morality may behave according to different rules than we might have expected, that doesn’t mean people are being immoral or dishonest. It just means that they’re engaging in a sort of moral balancing act of which they tend to be unaware.
This study on green purchases is just the latest data point in a body of research on how humans engage in what’s been termed “moral self-regulation.” Previous studies have found, for instance, that white people who voted for Barack Obama felt more justified in engaging in racist behavior later on. Similarly, people who engage in an act of gender fairness have been shown to be more likely to engage in an act of sexism down the line.
It seems from all of these experiments that we have, essentially, a moral set point — and we’re disinclined to move too far from it in either direction.
Another study published this year in Psychological Science found that people not only engage in “moral licensing,” acting worse the better they think they are, but also “moral cleansing,” attempting to do good when their self-image is threatened. In the experiment in this study, people were asked to write short stories about themselves, focusing on positive or negative traits; they were then asked if they would like to make a small donation to a charity of their choice. The people who wrote stories emphasizing negative traits about themselves gave five times more to charity than those who focused on positive traits.
While it perhaps makes sense that people who feel bad about themselves would want to do something positive to raise their self image, it’s a bit more of a puzzle why we seem to feel the need to curb feeling excessively good about our moral status. The authors of the charity study offer at least one plausible answer: that because altruistic behavior is costly to engage in, it makes sense that there would be some sort of mechanism for limiting it.
So, as we enter the season of charity and altruism, the lesson is paradoxical: If you want to hold onto your money, think about how good you are; if you want to do good, think about how bad you are.
Ryan Sager writes the blog Neuroworld at TrueSlant.com.