We’ve all seen scandals where the fiscally conservative legislator is caught misallocating funds for personal use, or the community activist taking some advantage of people in their charge. These sorts of scandals aren’t indicators of partisan political rot, but rather demonstrate the universal human weakness psychologists refer to as “moral licensing”. Moral licensing applies to all sorts of behaviors and I’m quite sure will be an ongoing problem as we struggle with the current social distancing and shelter-in-place guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moral licensing arises when we feel we’re “good enough” and thus virtuous compared with some people. It turns out we don’t really need to feel like a saint to be satisfied with ourselves – we merely need to feel good about some aspect of our behavior. The fiscally conservative legislator in my example above may have years of hard work saving taxpayers billions of dollars and (this is the important part) has been repeatedly praised for his thrift and discipline.
So when it comes time to redecorate his office, he understandably regards himself as more virtuous than other politicians. Those other legislators have rubber-stamped one pork-barrel spending item after another, but not him. What’s the harm if he – a man who has spearheaded the charge to cut billions from various spending bills – moves a few thousand dollars from a public account to his office redecorating account?
Moral licensing in the political arena knows no party – there’s plenty of it on both sides. But that which is easy to see in others can be harder to see in ourselves.
The logic of licensing is not, strictly speaking, logical. For one thing, we rarely require a connection between our “good” behavior and the “bad” behavior we’re justifying. Shoppers who restrain themselves from buying something tempting are more likely to go home and eat something tempting. Employees who put in extra time on a project may feel justified putting a personal expense on the company credit card.
Anything that makes us feel warm and fuzzy about our virtue – even just thinking about doing something good – can license us to follow our impulses….(a) study found that merely considering donating money to a charity – without actually handing over any cash – increased people’s desire to treat themselves at the mall.
The reason it’s called “moral” licensing is because we instinctively lump our choices into the categories of “good” or “bad”. Because we worked out today (which is “good”) we tell ourselves it’s ok for us to skip our workout tomorrow (even though we know that’s “bad”). The virtue we feel from today’s workout can be enough to justify a day of couch-surfing and potato-chip eating tomorrow.
Jumping back to the current pandemic, we all know that we should do everything we can to minimize our visits to stores. Nobody would want to be the cause of other people’s sickness or death, and we certainly don’t want to become sick ourselves.
But still….we’ve been so good lately. We’ve been home for a couple weeks now haven’t we? You never saw us behaving like those spring-breakers in Florida for God’s sake! We keep our distance when we see someone approaching us on the sidewalk don’t we? We have even given a couple lectures on Facebook about the importance of staying home and as a result have probably changed some people’s behavior through our own good example. So it probably wouldn’t hurt to run to the store every now and again in the same week to pick up some odds and ends, right?
When it comes justifying either past or future visits to the store I have been hearing some people use this phrase to describe how much they’ve been staying at home: “I’ve been pretty good”.
That phrase – which may be true in a sense – is right out of “Moral Licensing 101”. The speaker might be establishing their virtue, paving the way for multiple trips to a store when pre-planning could easily reduce four trips into one. That “I’ve been pretty good” phrase will adapt itself to this pandemic in the same way it adapts itself to how we eat during the non-pandemic times (e.g. I can order dessert because I only ate three pieces of pizza when I could have eaten four).
But a virus doesn’t care much about morals or how you feel about yourself. It can only be spread when it has humans spreading it, and for that it needs humans to show up where other humans like to hang out – bars, restaurants, churches, concerts and stores. You can shut down most of those but you can’t shut down certain stores. Grocery shopping still has to happen one way or another.
But some of us might be quick to give ourselves permission to accompany a family member to a store when only one person is needed to do the shopping. Moral licensing will probably cause some societal back-sliding when we see the early signs of progress in our battle against COVID-19 and a lot of people will say to themselves “I’ve been pretty good” and immediately start socializing with others, leading to additional outbreaks.
Knowing about moral licensing helps us be more ethical actors because we become aware – even to a small degree – of this bug in our software. Also, knowing that advertisers exploit our inclination toward moral licensing can make us smarter consumers. You might not, in fact, “deserve a break today” (McDonald’s) nor should you treat yourself.
I’m sure you have been “pretty good” in following the shelter-in-place guidance of your state. But the degree to which your visible adherence to that guidance makes you feel virtuous could become your own undoing. As the Book of Proverbs and millennia of human experience teach us, “Pride goeth before the fall”.
Avoiding that trap is one of your challenges (and mine) in the coming months.