Moral Licensing

published on July 9, 2020

Moral psychology isn't alwaysan easy thing to studyFirst of all,just using a surveyto ask peoplewhat they think is moraldoesn't always reveal what theywould do in real lifeAn experiment that actuallyputs peoplein what feels likea real scenariomay get more realistic results,

But researchers must alwaysbalance the benefitsof what we could learnwith the safety and well-beingof the people they studySecondly, what we learn frommoral psychology experimentsdoesn't always make humanslook goodFor example, today we're goingto look at moral licensing:

The theory that when you dosomething goodyou subconsciously feelyou've earned a licenseto then do something bad I've been working with Dr Kyle Stanford, from the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine,

on a way to observe moral licensing in the wildSo I want to see moral licensingin effectI want to see peoplewho have been led to believe,through their own actions,that they're goodUse that feelingto do bad

The thing to keep in mind,it's like peopleare keeping tabs,and they give themselves creditfor the moralthe good thing they didBut none of that is happeningconsciously, right?So we shouldn't imaginethat a person who's engaged

In moral licensing is askingthemselves in their headRight, pulling outtheir scorecardwhat should I be?Does it make me a good person?But it is going on,and they don't experience it-They don't know that it'shappening -RightI think we're going to learna lot today

-I say we go get started -Let's do itLet's do it So here's how the moral licensing test we designed is going to work First, we're going to take this beautiful park and, for the purposes of science,

throw trash everywhere Next, we've hired some unsuspecting actors who think they're going to film a public service announcement about the park-Hey, Jake Hey, man-Hi-Nice to meet you-Nice to meet you

Once they've arrived, it will be obvious that the trash is a problemWe just need to clean up thislittle alleyway right here Will they do a good deed and earn some moral credit by volunteering to help pick up the trash, or not? And to make everything feel more real,

we did have them film our fake PSAForget the concreteand the heatRelax in over16,000 square feetOf outdoor spacethat can't be beatRight outside your doorRight outsideyour door

Right outside your door After shooting the PSA, each participant will be asked to wait in a separate area for some final paperwork There, our confederate Cameron, who appears to be homeless, will ask them for money

Meanwhile, Dr Stanford and I will be watching behind the scenes to observe how our subjects react So, will our participants keep their subconscious moral scorecards balanced by giving money when they didn't clean, or feeling like they don't need to give money if they did?

-Hey!-MakayloMakaylo, nice to meet you First up in our demo was Makaylo We used our actual Mind Field crew as the crew of the fake PSA who are overwhelmed with the task

of cleaning up all the trashWe normally sort ofnever ask this, butwe've got, like, all this stuffthat we're trying to clean upI'm going to grab some glovesI was wondering,would you help me?-I'm sorry-Let's do it Let's do it

All three of uscan triple-team it-and we can get this thinggoing-Let's do it Let's do itYeah, this is justwhat we wanted to do todayIt looks like someonehad a good time, though All right,so picking up the trashHow do you thinkthat's currently sitting

With our actor?He's thinking of himself ashaving done a good deedthat he didn't need to do,that he didn't have to doRight? And so the moral creditis high Then it was time to shoot our PSATake it away

Forget the concreteand the heatRelax in 16,000square feetThat was great! All right, man-Hey, thanks so much-Cool No problem, man We compensated our participants for the PSA in small bills so they would have plenty to give the homeless man,

should they choose to do so-Here's $50-Thank you, thank you Then we asked them to wait in a nearby tent for their final paperwork Will Makaylo's good deed be enough moral credit for him to pass on helping the homeless guy?

All right, Cameron,this is MichaelYou can go aheadWhat's up?-What's up?-HiAre you with this?Yeah, I'm just waitingfor someone to help me out here

Could you help me outwith like a dollar or two?Just, I can goto the vending machine?Sorry, my man, I ain'tgot nothing but $20 bills on meright nowOh, I got nothingbut $20 bills-You sure?-Yeah, manAll right, well

We're going to go talk to himHey, Makaylo-Hey-Thanks for waiting-I'm Michael Nice to meet you-No problem Makaylo-This is Kyle-Nice to meet youNice to meet you,Makaylo

We really appreciateyour help today-I just saw– Did a guy come by?-YesWhat did he ask?-For a dollar bill- Oh, for a dollarbill?YeahDid you give him money?

-No-What'd you tell him?I just told himI didn't have anythingSo I'm going to debrief youon what we're doing here todayWe're doing a psychologicalexploratory experimenton what's calledmoral licensingWe're looking at the correlationbetween people

Who do volunteer to helppick up the trash,and how generous you are laterto a homeless personwho walks byInterestingNow, you just exhibitedthe exact patternof moral licensing, right?

In that you had alreadydone a good deed–So I was good for the dayRight Did we just see moral licensing in effect? Perhaps Let's see what our other subjects do

Here, let me just have youhang out hereIs there anybodythat can help us clean up this?-I'm going to go look around-All rightOkay, so this is AlexAnd Alex is just messingwith his stuffHe's either not really noticing,

Or pretending not to noticeBut all of that is just fineThe question iswhat he then goes on to do So Alex didn't help pick up trash Will his guilt put him at a moral deficit, and therefore motivate him to give money to the homeless man?

HeyCan you spare some money?Maybe help me out?-You want a buck?-A buck? YeahCan I give you a buck?Is that cool?That's more than cool, manI just got paid to be here

-Really?-YeahHelping to shoot a PSA, yeahWhere do I sign up?-Thank you-All right, take careAll rightVery interestingI do wonder if he felta little bit of guilt

We got it in the oppositedirection,-which was going to bethe hard thing to do-YeahI'm very happy about thisNext, we have JakeSo I'm on set doing a PSA shootHey, he's doing a vlog

And I get here,and it appearsthat someone had awhat could only be describedas a trash partyI mean, they just threw trashliterally everywhere,all over where they wantto shootSo I'm going to go help thempick up some of the trash

First, I'm going to make surethat I documentthat I'm a helperI would also like to point out,though, that he has not helped- Right-He's gone back into the tentAnd I wonder, when it comesto moral licensing,does this play an effect?

I can check the boxNot only am I good,but the world knows I'm goodNow, this is somethingwe haven't seen beforeI love thisI love that he got creditfor helping,-but didn't-Right

What's interestingbut hard to knowis how that'll look to him,whether he'll see himselfas having done a good deed,or seeing himself as kind ofskated on the obligation,because he didn'treally helpHey, do you thinkyou could spare some money,

Maybe help me out?Here, manHere's a dollar-Really?-YeahGo for itAll right, you're a good manThank youWe were really curious as wewere watching this all unfold,

Because you agreed to help,and then you recorded a videoabout how you weregoing to help,but by the time all thatwas over,you didn't need to helpIt was all cleaned up-Right-So we were wondering,

Did you feel likeyou had helped, or not?No I didn't have time toAnd you didn't feel guiltyLike, ooh, I kind of likegot out of helpingNo, I didn't feel badabout thatI would have definitelypicked up trash

Erin's likely to be thinkingthat she's doing a good deedYeahCould you maybe help me out,give me some money?I'm sorry, I don't haveanything on me here-No?-They won't let me-Oh-Yeah

-That was great-Yes, we have a couplegood illustrationsin both directions We seemed to have witnessed moral licensing at play in several cases But, of course, as with any demonstration like this, our results weren't always cut-and-dry

I'm going to go tryto clean this up myself,and thenGotcha Yeah, yeah Some of the participants both didn't help clean and declined to give our homeless man moneyCould you maybespare some change?

I just want to goto the vending machine?Uh However, they did find other ways to help hiim that could qualify as a good deedThey have snacks, maybeI'm goingto take a pop

OkayDo you want a sodaor something?Yeah, that'd beDo you maybe have a littlemoney as well?-I don't, sorry But-Okaywhich onedo you want?

So what was goingthrough your mindwhen you made the decisionnot to givesome of the cashthat we know you hadto the man who was asking?You know, there's just likea whole bunch of stereotypesabout homeless people

And you don't knowwhat you're getting into And we had a couple subjects who both volunteered to clean and gave moneyDo you need anyassistance?If you wouldn't mind,that'd be really helpfulOh, he's offering to help Oh!

-Do you need any help?-Oh, would you mind?- Oh, she just offeredShe offered- She's volunteered These were the only two participants who did good deeds at both opportunities- Thank you so much for thehelp – Of course-Do you maybe have some sparechange? -Here you go

-Thanks a lot-Best of luck-Here you go Hope it helps-Thank you so muchYou're welcomeAll right, let's go talk to herAnother good,good personWhat motivated youto give the man money?

I actually tend to give peoplemoney oftenI don't know if that'sthe best thingInteresting So two people both cleaned and donated money But everyone else either cleaned and didn't give, or didn't clean, but gave in some form

What do you thinkabout how everything went?Well, it was really interestingI would like to do it with manymore peopleBut I think we sawthe phenomenon, right?We saw the thing happenSomething we weren't expecting,actually,is sort of the gap betweenwhat people did

And what they saidabout why they did it-Yeah-Right? And that's something–I mean, social psychologygenerally has learnedto be very suspiciousof people's rationalesor justificationsfor their own behaviorBut these actually fitkind of nicely

You could see people strainingto defend themselvesif they didn't do a good deedthat was open to themRight? And then a lot of peoplewho did good deeds had the,"Well, of course, that's whatanyone would do" attitude-Right?- Yeah I believe our study

successfully created the conditions for moral licensing to emerge It was a great first step towards taking this kind of study out of the lab and into the real world But, of course, many people already have a philosophy

about giving to the homeless that might be stronger than the impact of a good deed they do So we're not done yetNow, here's what I wantto do next, okay?We learned a lotof lessons today,and I think one of them is thatwhen the scenarios

You put people inare scenarios they may haveexperienced before,that can affectthe resultsIf someone did or did notgive money to a homeless person,they can easilyexplain it away as,"Well, I never do,"or "I always do"

I want to find a scenariothat we don't find ourselvesin very often,that we haven't createda philosophyor identity about ourselvesaroundFor instance,allowing someone elseto take the blame

For something that you didBecause that seemslike a scenariowhere all of us would saywe would never let that happenBut if we build up significantmoral license in that person,will they actuallydo somethingthat none of us would ever wantto admit that we would do?

Are you down to plansomething else?I am down indeedAll right, let's do it Kyle and I developed a different sort of test to really try and pinpoint moral licensing by putting our participants in a situation

they'd likely never been in before, and thus had no preconceived assumptions about A test that might make people behave in a way that could surprise even themselvesWelcome, everybodyThank you for coming todayIn a nutshell,what we're doing

Is we're going to see if we canget people to do somethingthat almost all of uswould never admitwe're capable of doing:to allow a childto take the blamefor a crimethey committedAnd we're going to do thatby using moral licensing

Early on in the demonstrationor experiment,they're going to havean opportunity to donate money To really up the value of their moral action, we will tell the participants that for every dollar they give of the money they've made today, 100 times that amount will be given to children's hospitals

So if they donate just a dollar today, they'll feel like they gave $100We're giving them a chance thereto do something morally goodthat will hopefullymake them feellike they don't haveto step upand keep this innocent childfrom taking the fall

For their crimes later onThey just think they're comingto test outreally cool VR equipmentat the YouTube Spacein Los Angeles Our participants will think that they're here to focus-test a new kind of VR technology

But what they don't know is that everyone else is a hired actor, including the child, Noah Participants will be told that security is of the utmost concern, and not to let anyone into the room

Just be sure not to letanybody in,because the doorsyou need a key card But while waiting, someone will knock on the door If they break protocol and open the door, the man they let in will steal some of the VR equipment

You guys have a good day Even though the participant let the thief in, Noah will volunteer that he did, and be blamed for what the participant knows they were responsible for-And, Noah, you let him in?-Yeah

Yeah, I let someone in Putting participants into difficult moral scenarios needs to be done carefully, so we have a psychiatrist on call Now with all the details in place, it's time to beginAll right, Noah,we are starting

NowAll rightHead on inGo ahead and grab a seat Our first participant is Kimberly Kimberly gave $1 of her earnings from the study, which means she thinks that she's donated $100

Just be sure that if you guys need to go to the bathroom or anything like that, be sure to let someone knowBecause no onewithout a key card-should be coming back in-Okay GotchaAll right, Noah,you can cue your mom to leave

– Just stay there- Okay To get rid of any eyewitnesses, Noah's mom left the room to go get a coffee–Have you done this?-No I'm excited-No?-Oh, nice-Have you?

-No-OhI'm excitedOh, there's the knockingSo our thief is tryingto get inThe question is,will Kimberly let him in?Is somebody knocking?

I love those suspicious eyes- Thank you so much-Oh, yeah, you're welcome-Oh, "thank you,""you're welcome"-AwesomeYou guys havinga good day?YeahYou guys havea good day

Thank youAll right, I think we arefinally ready for youOkay, I'll have youdo you guys knowif there was anybodywho wasn't supposedto be in here?Yeah, I let someone in

OkayUmstay right hereI'll be right backOkey-dokeyWhat happened?

I don't knowKimberly didn't speak upWe'll get to seethe full escalationYeah, I was gone for maybe,like, three minutes,andone of the sets is gone

I meanthe amount of technologyThe protocolsthat are kept in thereYou just opened the doorand let someone in?YeahMm-mm

Oh, my goshMy heart rate's goingI mean,I didn't know, soI think Kimberly's reallynervous to say anythingShe hasn't decided at this pointthat she's going to let himtake the blame

But she's seeinghow it plays out To further heighten the situation, and to prolong the opportunity for Kimberly to come clean, we sent in security-How old are you, son?-Twelve

You're 12? All right, just havethe rest of the employeesstay out of the hallway, givethe officers room to come inOkay, we have to keepthings safe,because just in case there'ssomething else going on hereCan you tell mewhat you saw?Is there somethingthat you saw,

Or that you noticedthat was?I literally just came in, like,five minutes ago,and there was just dudescoming in and out-So-OkayThe guy that he's describing,he was coming in and out?There was like a couple guyscoming in and out, so

– But there were tons ofguys coming in and out-YeahAll right, I'm going to haveCalvin take the kid awayOkay, sorry, butMom, you and the son are goingto need to come with me, okay?Yeah, still have themcome in Kimberly was given many chances to tell the truth,

but she said nothing, letting poor Noah take the blameWhy?One little thingto followSorryCan I go?

Like, everybody leftI'm not going to be hereby myselfWe got to get in thereOkay, let's go, Kyle-Are you Kimberly?-I am YeahI'm gonna debrief you on what'sbeen happening here today

Okay?There is no VR experienceI'm Michael Stevens, I'm thehost of a psychology programAnd this is Kyle StanfordHe works at UC, Irvine,-in Philosophy and Logic-Yes Of courseNow, you gave a donation today

YeahHow'd you feelabout that?I was, like,let me help outWhen the child actortook responsibilityfor letting a person in,were you at allconflicted

About the factthat he was takingfull responsibilityfor everything?I was literally, like,just frozenI was just frozenAnd then I was kind of like,I feel so uncomfortableright now

I, like, just kind of let himsay whatever he wantedAnd I assume, like, if somebodyactually took anything,they'd be like, hey, you'rethe one that let the guy in In Kimberly's case, she may have been displaying moral licensing Kimberly donated,

and that might have given her the moral credit to then not accept blameIf she's not being insincere,she's not lying-She's asking herself, like—and convincing herself,she's utterly typical,we all do that

What subjects are most likelydoing is confabulatingin a way to defend whateverbehavior they engage in,especially if they decidedto let Noah take the fallWhat I love is thatconfabulation Some participants gave no donation and subsequently followed the order not to open the door

Guys, pleaseMy hands are fullI got to get this in thereMy boss told me toPlease, guys This is Zeus He chose to donate $5,

which means he feels like he's responsible for a $500 donationHey, guysDid youwas there anyone in herewho didn't haveone of these key cards?

Yes Sorry, I let someone inOkay, I-Wait, wait, wait-I will be right backMiss, that was meDon't take the blame for meIt was me I thought he worked here

Okay, umjust stay right here, guysI will be right back Even though Zeus donated money, he still did what many of us would consider the right thing: he confessed

Situations like this can be difficult We don't always like what we learn about ourselves In fact, one of the participants who donated the largest amount allowed Noah to be removed by security and asked to not be included in this episode

Our last participant was Michael, who did not donateHey HelloI got a box out here, manI can'thello?Thank you, man

I'm amazed that no one has askedthe guy for a badgeRightWas there someonein here?This guy just came in-He was banging on the door-Uh-huhCame in, picked something up,and then he walked out

Okay-Um-I was drawingdid he have a badge?-I don't know-I let him in, soI let him inI don't know what happenedHe was bangingon the door

Michael initially confessed, his behavior in line with moral licensing But Noah spoke up, giving Michael an out Will Michael stick to the truth?-Oh, here we go-Oh, okayHe let the guy in

Son, can you tell mewhat happened?Yeah, a guy was knockingon the door and he said,"Can I please come in?"Something about his bossAnd thenYou saidGuy was banging on the door,said "his boss"

Opened the door for himHe comes in herehe takes something,and then he walks outAnd, Noah, you let him in?Yeah Okay, youopened the door and let him inOkayWhat must be racing throughMichael's head right now?

-Why is this kid-It's very hardto imagineThis is a very strangesituation- Obviously-a regular person to be inI think you're just thinking,"Why is this kidsaying he did it?"Trying to figure it out Yeah

I think,at this point,you and your mom are goingto need to come with me,because we're going to needto talk to the police,because he openedthe door,and he was not supposedto open the door,-and he opened up the door-If you'd just listen

I tell you,just listen-I promise we're right—Mom, come with mePromiseJust keep your hands to yourselfand do what I ask you to doGod!We should go in

RightWhat made it difficultto come forwardand admit that you were the onewho opened the door?I felt uncomfortablethat something was stolen, oneTwo, that this kid was goingto take the blameI mean, I needed to step upand be accountable

If I opened the doorBut it was just didn't quiteknow what was going onin that scenario there Michael's behavior shows us just how complicated moral reasoning is That even when we want to do the right thing,

it doesn't take much for us to step back and abandon that sense of morality if, and when, we are given an outSo, KyleI was pretty surprisedby how farso many people were willingto let the wrong blame game go

Viewers may wellbe sitting therejudging the people who didn'tjump up to take responsibilityBut I think the kind of evidencewe're gatheringshows that it's much morepossible than you thinkto get regular peopleto do thingsthat they immediatelyfeel regretful about

Another kind of lessonI think we get hereis to remind ourselveshow sensitive all of us areto features of the situation,even if we feelin our heart of hearts-like there's no way we couldever have wound up doing it-YeahThat is probablythe number-one lesson,

And I'm so grateful to theparticipants we had here todaywho helped us illustrate that,because withoutthe illustrations,it's just a wordin a textbookRightWe are all capableof doing thingswe'd never expect ourselvesto do

And the choicesthat you makecan have less to dowith how good or badyou are as a person,and more to do withhow you've acted recentlyNow, that mightsound unfortunate,but we areimperfect creatures

And that's nothingto be ashamed of,because we are also curiousAnd the more we learnabout why and howwe make the moral choicesthat we do,the better we'll be ableto tackledifficult questionsin the future

And, as always,thanks for watching

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