Are You Good?

Two Bryn Mawr undergraduates take a cross-cultural look at moral licensing.

Good deeds don’t necessarily beget more good deeds, but cultural context can influence a person’s subconscious attitude toward morality.

Such were the findings in a cross-cultural study of moral licensing conducted by seniors Priyanka Dutta and Kate Pellegrini.

The term “moral licensing” describes the concept of a subconscious “good quota” that influences moral behavior. In other words, doing something “good” boosts an individual’s moral self-concept but then, secure in her self-image, she is free to do something “bad.”

“You’d think that if you do a good act, you’d be more willing to do good in the next iterations, but actually the literature says that you’re more likely to commit selfish acts if you commit a good one first,” says Pellegrini.

The pair wanted to compare how Eastern and Western concepts of morality influence how individuals license their morality. Over the summer, Pellegrini and Dutta were stationed in Portland, Oregon, and Mumbai, respectively, to collect data for their study, which was supervised by Louisa Egan Brad, formerly an assistant professor at Bryn Mawr and now at the University of Portland.

“We were expecting to see that moral licensing would be more present in the U.S. population and less present in the Eastern populations because of the influence of different religions and cultural concepts such as karma,” says Dutta.

The students recruited a randomized sample of 192 people in public spaces and assigned them to one of two groups: a “hard” group or an “easy” group. Each participant received a questionnaire asking if they regularly complete a variety of environmental conservation tasks.

One group of participants was asked whether they completed relatively easy activities, such as recycling paper, while the other group was asked about more difficult activities, such as making one’s own shampoo.

After completing the questionnaire, participants were told that they had been entered into a raffle for $60 and that they could either keep the money or give it to charity.

In the U.S., the moral licensing effect was in evidence: those who felt environmentally responsible donated less money to charity.

But in Asia, says Dutta, “people still donated more money, whether they were in the easy or difficult group.”

Conference Proceedings

The pair presented their findings at the 2017 Conference for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.