The Good Behavior of Others Earns You the Right to be Bad

Previous research on moral licensing — the idea that doing something that exhibits good morals liberates you to do something morally questionable — has found that it only applies to your own actions. However, a new study by Maryam Kouchaki of the University of Utah demonstrates that this effect holds not just when you have done something moral, but when members of your group of have done something moral.

Through a series of four experiments Kouchaki showed that when a person’s group selected a Hispanic applicant for a prior task (good morals), the person was more likely to give discriminatory ratings to the Hispanic applicant (bad morals). In addition, when a person was able to view an in-group member’s non-prejudiced hiring decision (good morals) they were more likely to reject an African-American applicant (bad morals).

In terms of a political application, the thing that jumps out at me is President Obama perpetually disappointing progressives when it comes to civil liberties and the war on terror. There are a number of good explanations for why Obama chose to continue many of the Bush era policies. It’s possible Obama decided it was the politically expedient thing to do. It’s also possible Obama genuinely believed the policies are legal and that it is in the best interest of the country to continue them.

But perhaps there is a little bit of moral licensing going on. From 2006-2008 progressives were out in full force protesting the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, and the War in Iraq. It seems plausible that the moral actions of Obama’s “group” made it easier for him to engage in behavior that the 2004 Obama would most likely have considered morally questionable.
Kouchaki, M. (2011). Vicarious moral licensing: The influence of others’ past moral actions on moral behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (4), 702-715 DOI: 10.1037/a0024552


5 Responses to The Good Behavior of Others Earns You the Right to be Bad

  1. Political conscience and policies are based on a great deal more than just campaign promises. On some level I think we all know that politicians never carry through on all their promises (we feel lucky if they carry out just a few).

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