Group Moral Licensing

We are more willing to do bad if we have recently done good. We also think we get more excuses to do bad if our group is good:

Five studies supported the hypothesis that people are more willing to express prejudiced attitudes when their group members’ past behavior has established nonprejudiced credentials. Study 1a showed that participants who were told that their group was more moral than similar other groups were more willing to describe a job as better suited for Whites than for African Americans. In Study 1b, when given information on group members’ prior nondiscriminatory behavior (selecting a Hispanic applicant in a prior task), participants subsequently gave more discriminatory ratings to the Hispanic applicant for a position stereotypically suited for majority members (Whites). In Study 2, moral self-concept mediated the effect of others’ prior nonprejudiced actions on a participant’s subsequent prejudiced behavior such that others’ past nonprejudiced actions enhanced the participant’s moral self-concept, and this inflated moral self-concept subsequently drove the participant’s prejudiced ratings of a Hispanic applicant. In Study 3, the moderating role of identification with the credentialing group was tested. Results showed that participants expressed more prejudiced attitudes toward a Hispanic applicant when they highly identified with the group members behaving in nonprejudiced manner. In Study 4, the credentialing task was dissociated from the participants’ own judgmental task, and, in addition, identification with the credentialing group was manipulated rather than measured. Consistent with prior studies, the results showed that participants who first had the opportunity to view an in-group member’s nonprejudiced hiring decision were more likely to reject an African American man for a job stereotypically suited for majority members. These studies suggest a vicarious moral licensing effect. (more)

Citizens of the United States are especially proud of a history of (supposedly) doing good. The US sees itself as having saved the world from Nazism and Communism, of creating and sustaining modern medicine, of educating the world via the best universities, of being the main innovators in computer tech, of upholding the highest standards of civil and gender rights, of being unusually devoted to religion, etc.

All this self-respect, deserved or not, probably makes US citizens more willing to do bad, both individually and collectively. Dear US citizens: please ask yourself how sure you can be that your actions on the world stage are actually for good.

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  • JB

    Most people I know are not particularly proud of the history of the US as it relates to doing good. It was one of the last major nations to abolish slavery, we had a president who was in the KKK, the supreme court ordered the trail of tears march, we put japanese people in camps during WWII…the list goes on and on. Perhaps a lot of people are unaware of incidents such as these, but like I said, almost everybody I speak to is well aware and holds no illusions that the US has plenty of skeletons in its closet.

    • John

      I suspect that’s true for most readers of this blog but not for US citizens in general. Personally, I think the US has done far more to be proud of than to be ashamed of, but I was one of the only students at my college to hold that view.

      Also, off-topic, Andrew Jackson actually defied a Supreme Court ruling that prohibited forced relocation, responding “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!” Of course, the fact that we voted for someone who blatantly ignored the constitution in order to forcibly relocate Native Americans is probably worse…

      Anyway, to play devil’s advocate on the subject of the paper itself, isn’t there an unspoken assumption in the linked paper that discrimination is always both evil and incorrect? Could there be an alternative interpretation that “when one’s group has a track record of fairness, we are more willing to make the right call even if our decision gives the impression of unfairness”?

      • Doug S.

        It’s debatable whether Jackson ever actually said that… and it’s more that he didn’t intervene to stop the state of Georgia from ignoring the ruling than that he ignored it himself. I don’t know if that matters, though, because the forced relocation did indeed happen…

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Which president was in the KKK? Woodrow Wilson’s endorsement of “Birth of a Nation” was touted by the newly-revived klan, but he wasn’t a member. Robert Byrd and Hugo Black were former members who expressed regret later on (when the klan was much less popular), I think they were the most politically successful klansmen.

      • JB

        Well, I was referring to Wilson. He may or may not have technically been a member, but he certainly at the very least was a published racist who supported the klan. So the semantics here are irrelevant to my major point which is that there is plenty of history of the united states and its leaders not “doing good”.

        So forget about Wilson then and substitute instead that Thomas Jefferson repeatedly raped his slaves. That should be good enough in the category of “presidents who did bad things”. (And yes, that category has a lot of representation from all the presidents!!)

  • J

    “ask yourself how sure you can be that your actions on the world stage are actually for good”

    How are the examples you cite, which all involve individual rather than collective behavior, relevant to that question?

    “Most people I know are not particularly proud of the history of the US as it relates to doing good”

    Most of the countries on this planet wouldn’t have put Japanese Americans in camps; they would have rounded them up and killed them (which, worldwide, seems to be a routine method of handling such “conflicts” to this day). I’m not excusing what was done (to them, indians, or slaves), and there are certainly skeletons in our closet, but I think we hold up pretty well relative to other countries. There does seem to be a faction in this country that condemns us based on anything we’ve done wrong, without regard to whether our influence is a net positive or negative. Would the world be a better or worse place without us?

    “isn’t there an unspoken assumption in the linked paper that discrimination is always both evil and incorrect?”

    “describe a job as better suited for Whites than for African Americans” seems reasonably clear cut, though the abstract doesn’t get specific about what they mean by prejudiced attitudes and rankings, so it may not go beyond that.

    “being unusually devoted to religion”

    Relative to western Europe maybe; certainly not compared to the rest of the world.

  • jsalvatier

    I’ve updated the wikipedia page on Moral Credential to reference that article. Please feel free to expand or correct it.

  • Chris Gregory

    Travel books sell very poorly in the US. Australian travel writers who make it big go to England, simply because that’s the largest audience for books (in English) about foreign countries. My partner is both a travel writer and edits books for one of the biggest travel guide companies. The American-born authors stick out, being unable to recognise when they are using colloquial expressions meaningless to people outside the US. They have other shortcomings I am too polite to point out…the gist of being, that the relationship between the US and the rest of the world is a bit like the relationship between New York and the rest of the US (particularly the middle bits). Americans have little interest in anything that goes on outside their shores (they won’t even watch a movie unless it has Americans in it, on the whole. Ironically, here in Australia we always used to hire down-on-their luck US talent for the lead roles in local feature films).

    The few Americans who do travel are not well-liked, and that again is being overly polite (although travellers to America are struck by the friendliness and openness of Americans)…Americans who live for any time overseas generally don’t assimilate, and choose to live in compounds suited to their particular needs rather than adjust and live among the locals.

    Personally, I think it’s an empathic failure, the inability to see themselves reflected in the eyes of the rest of the world. I don’t think that the US has much of a future in global affairs unless it can relieve itself of these colonialist and essentially xenophobic attitudes. We’re on the verge of just turning our backs on the US entirely and getting on with our own affairs.

  • komponisto

    Dear US citizens: please ask yourself how sure you can be that your actions on the world stage are actually for good.

    Whether you intended it or not, those four words were all it took to turn an informative post into a political rant.

    (You switched from a near-mode warning to individual Americans about moral licensing to a far-mode critique of U.S. foreign policy, which evokes standard political affiliations.)

  • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

    On the one hand, this might explain nativists in a nation where that’s wildly inappropriate.

    On the other hand, I’d like to know how small (or how weird) were the samples used in the research.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    Is this why the “leaders” of supposedly “moral” groups act the way they do?

    Is this why Gingrich felt he could cheat on multiple wives? Why people like George Alan Rekers, Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart had such a disconnect between what they would say and what they would do? Why Scientologists feel they are above the law and entitled to do anything they want?

    Is that why the GOP feels entitled to give their rich backers big government subsidies even as they deny minimal benefits to the poor?

    Is it the mindset that simply by preaching against one type of behavior to one group that one feels justified in doing that behavior themselves?

    • Sandeep

      And is that why some democrat-supporting eco-freaks fly in private jets to talk against global warming?

      Is that why those who endorse light bulb ban go for energy consuming cooking techniques?

      Is that why liberalish rants about how pornography objectifies women often themselves feature very racy language?

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    My understanding is that Al Gore buys carbon-offsets for the CO2 emitted when he flies, and for every other GHG emitting activity he participates in. He is not saying that one should emit fewer GHGs as a moral choice, he is saying one should emit fewer GHGs to prevent global warming.

    It isn’t that emitting GHG is immoral, it is that emitting GHG that are not compensated for are contributing to global warming and will cause Greenland to melt which will raise sea level by 7 meters. These are not issues of morality, they are issues of fact.

    The same is true of light bulbs and cooking. Raw pizza is not something that humans can digest well. Uncooked gluten is quite bad for some people. If one is going to cook food, efficient methods are to be preferred. Similarly with light bulbs, if one is going to generate light, one should use efficient means.

    The idea of limiting and compensating for greenhouse gas emissions is not at all like Group moral licensing. Greenhouse gas emissions are easily and unambiguously measured and calculated and can be individually controlled. Morality is not so easily measured, in fact some people have ideas about morality that seem (to me) to be incompatible. For example wanting a smaller and less intrusive government that seeks to control what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms and what women do in the privacy of their own bodies are not concepts that I find compatible.

    • Sandeep

      Al Gore is not the only guy, anyway, there are others like Prince Charles etc. No one asked NYTimes readers to eat raw pizza : the point is, there are ways to cook other food items without keeping an oven at 500 degrees F for one hour, and the liberal NYT did make a conscious choice of the energy-inefficient food.

      GHG issue is also one of morality. Your argument only claims that the morality there is backed up by science, which is completely beside the point for this argument. This is not to say I agree with the claim of your argument, because you haven’t shown me calculations as to the extent to which switching over from light bulbs decreases global warming (for instance, is it going to delay the sinking of Greenland by a whopping 0.1 seconds?)

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        Prince Charles is an immoral, hypocritical idiot. He is no icon of morality or of science or of liberalism and is no member of any groups that are (as far as I know). I don’t see any way that he could possibly get a claim on group morality by belonging to a particular group.

        I don’t really understand your position. If you don’t accept the science of AGW, then Al Gore’s actions will have no impact on AGW, no impact on Greenland melting, no impact on sea level rise, and so can’t have a moral value.

        If you do accept the science of AGW, then if GHG emissions are compensated for (as Al Gore’s are), then there is no increase in GHG due to certain activities, there is no increase in global warming due to certain activities, there is no accelerated melting of Greenland, there is no accelerated rise in sea level, there can be no moral issue over a non-existent increase.

        Compact fluorescent light bulbs are more energy efficient than tungsten filament, they also last a lot longer (~10x). They are cheaper both to purchase and to operate. If one replaces ten 100 Watt incandescent bulbs with ten 18 Watt compact fluorescent bulbs, one uses ~820 fewer Watts per hour of operation. If we look at the energy cost of operating an electric oven

        http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/home/appliances/ranges.html

        Assuming the liberal NYT readers use a slightly more efficient electric convection oven, the power consumption is 1.39 kwhr for 45 minutes at 325 F. Assuming steady state, an hour at 500 F in an 80 F ambient would use ((60/45) * (500-80) / (325-80) )* 1.39 = 3.18 kwhr.

        So by operating 10 CFL instead of 10 incandescent bulbs for 3.9 hours, the CFL user who bakes pizza in an oven for an hour is energy consumption neutral. If pizza is cooked this way once a week, then using CFLs for less than one hour a day makes up for the energy use in cooking the pizza.

        Where is the immorality in that?

        If you don’t accept the science of AGW, then there is no ice melting and sea level rise to talk about. If you do accept the science of AGW, then maybe cooking pizza that way is profligate, but it needn’t be.

        Does anyone dispute that adultery is immoral? Do those “moral leaders” claim that what they are doing is mitigating their immorality? If Gingrich had open marriages with his former wives, where having sex with other people was understood by them to be acceptable, then what he did would not be immoral. But he and is former wives did not have open marriages. Gingrich has not gotten his earlier marriages annulled, which means they never happened (in Gingrich’s eyes). So cheating on his then wives is not now adultery because those were just fake marriages.

        Is this the kind of “morality” that is acceptable for “leaders” to exhibit?

  • jose

    It’s a natural tendency for anyone / country possessing power (doing good also enhances power) and making errors while exercising their influence to achieving further goals. May be this tendency could be due to rampant industrialisation, globalisation, and the consequent acquisition of economic development, pci gaps and leading countries (first world) into a false sense of superiority, Today we do observe many economic, and social gaps in these societies.

    Doing ‘good’ and expecting returns for the same is not ‘doing good’. Selfish tendencies are an act of survival for the weak and insecure in a moral sense. That’s why priests who traditionally hold power over man as the avatar of God, loses out on the power race, when the followers / subjects get to understand the sometimes selfish tendencies of the priest/ king/ government. Modernity, through active media channels and networking has helped in enabling a more equitable and transparent world into our common future.

    The US like any other country had the opportunity to ‘do good’, in the pure sense of giving and not through exploitation. I hasten to state that the writer’s positive statements about America is so true and has gained the respect and maybe envy of the other nations. A big brother will gain respect and love from his actions (helpful) for his siblings and members beyond the family. America has a respectable history of philanthropy, social security schemes et. al. Collective good cannot come without enlightened leadership which stands up stoically against greed, selfishness, pride, and the other basic errors going against encouraging and ensuring a more humane society. A more humane society established globally will ensure minimum equity, sharing, trust and consequently, happiness for all of man.

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