We drink Diet Coke -- with Quarter Pounders and fries at McDonald's. We go to the gym -- and ride the elevator to the second floor. We install tankless water heaters -- then take longer showers. We drive SUVs to see Al Gore's speeches on global warming.
These behavioral riddles beg explanation, and social psychologists are offering one in new studies. The academic name for such quizzical behavior is moral licensing. It seems that we have a good/bad balance sheet in our heads that we're probably not even aware of. For many people, doing good makes it easier -- and often more likely -- to do bad. It works in reverse, too: Do bad, then do good.It's not mere illogic nor garden-variety hypocrisy at work here, in other words -- there are deeper moral problems:
University of Toronto behavioral marketing professor Nina Mazar showed in a recent study that people who bought green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products. One of Mazar's experiments invited participants to shop either at online stores that carry mainly green products or mainly conventional products. Then they played a game that allowed them to cheat to make more money. The shoppers from the green store were more dishonest than those at the conventional store, which brought them higher earnings in the game.
"People do not make decisions in a vacuum; their decisions are embedded in a history of behaviors," Mazar wrote, with co-author Chen-Bo Zhong. "Purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors."Thus, "going Green" performs much the same moral/psychological function that buying an indulgence had for many in the Middle Ages. And though the author doesn't get into more complex or nastier examples of the same phenomenon, it's easily observed in other areas as well. For example, as long as I'm a liberal -- and liberals are, by the accepted definition within liberal circles, Good -- I can't be an anti-Semitic bigot, despite a distaste for Jews that I express by joining in the routine, if over-the-top, denunciations of the Jewish homeland. In fact, being an overt liberal can give me licence to indulge in a wide variety of quite acceptable stereotypes, bigotries, and hatreds -- e.g., against Christians, country-music fans, or Sarah Palin. And even to slip into the occasional expression of unacceptable prejudices -- e.g., regarding blacks, women, or gays, say -- as long as it's just between us libs, or it's used incidentally to heap abuse on the acceptable targets.
Now, first of all, this goes beyond the more trivial examples of moral inconsistency that the author of the Post article sticks with -- understandably, since he doesn't want to make his readers too uncomfortable. We're talking now about people with political opinions, after all, as opposed to, e.g., dietary ones. But, second of all, though this kind of licencing works for anyone with a powerful sense of their own righteousness, it also works in the opposite direction, as the article suggests -- that is, it provides a powerful source of rectitude, in the absence of traditionally religious sources, for those who are anxious or uncertain as to their own moral status. So, third of all, then, political opinions of this sort are going to be quite immune to any sort of rational correction, and so will always have a special attraction to those inclined, for reasons of safety and ease, toward orthodoxy, i.e., the bien pensant -- because you don't have to think about them. There's no point! Just sign on to the general doctrine, display the right opinions in public, and you're good to go -- to cocktail parties, book signings, gallery openings, etc. (Might need a little caution at NASCAR races, is all. But then you wouldn't be caught there anyway, would you?)