Can buying organic produce and natural shampoo turn you into a heartless jerk?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Dec. 7 2009 6:24 PM

Buy Local, Act Evil

Can organic produce and natural shampoo turn you into a heartless jerk?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

As the owner of several energy-efficient light bulbs and a recycled umbrella, I'm familiar with the critiques of "ethical consumption." In some cases, it's not clear that ostensibly green products are better for the environment. There's also the risk that these lifestyle choices will make us complacent, sapping the drive to call senators and chain ourselves to coal plants. Tweaking your shopping list, the argument goes, is at best woefully insufficient and maybe even counterproductive.

But new research by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto levels an even graver charge: that virtuous shopping can actually lead to immoral behavior. In their study (described in a paper now in press at Psychological Science), subjects who made simulated eco-friendly purchases ended up less likely to exhibit altruism in a laboratory game and more likely to cheat and steal.

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In an experiment, participants were randomly assigned to select items they wanted to buy in one of two online stores. One store sold predominantly green products, the other mostly conventional items. Then, in a supposedly unrelated game, all of the participants were allocated $6, to share as they saw fit with an anonymous (and unbeknownst to them, imaginary) recipient. Subjects who had chosen items from the green store coughed up less money, on average, than their counterparts. In a second experiment, participants were again assigned to shop in either a green or conventional store. Then they performed a computer task that involved earning small sums of cash. The setup offered the opportunity to cheat and steal with impunity. The eco-shoppers were more likely to do both.

It would be foolish to draw conclusions about the real world from just one paper and from such an artificial scenario. But the findings add to a growing body of research into a phenomenon known among social psychologists as "moral credentials" or "moral licensing." Historically, psychologists viewed moral development as a steady progression toward more sophisticated decision-making. But an emerging school of thought stresses the capriciousness of moral responses. Several studies propose that the state of our self-image can directly influence our choices from moment to moment. When people have the chance to demonstrate their goodness, even in the most token of ways, they then feel free to relax their ethical standards.

In 2001, Benoit Monin and Dale Miller of Princeton published a pioneering study of this licensing tendency. The study investigated whether showing a lack of bias in one situation would free subjects to express prejudice later on. They found that people who had designated a woman as the best candidate for a gender-neutral job were then more likely to recommend a man for a stereotypically masculine job. Another experiment yielded similar results with regard to race.

Newer work has focused on morality more broadly. Earlier this year, researchers at Northwestern reported that subjects who wrote self-flattering stories later pledged to give less money to charity than those who wrote stories that were self-critical or about someone else. In another recent study, participants who recalled their own righteous deeds were less inclined to donate blood, volunteer, or engage in other "prosocial" acts. They were also more likely to cheat on a math assignment.

Why might this happen? According to Monin, now a professor at Stanford, there are two theories. One is that when we've established our rectitude, we interpret ensuing behavior in a different light: I just proved I'm a good person, so what I'm doing now must be okay. This reasoning, of course, works best in ambiguous situations, not with egregious sins. For example, in Monin's experiments, it seems plausible that after participants have displayed a lack of prejudice, they see their next judgment call as based on sound analysis. (Indeed, it's possible that the subjects are not expressing prejudice but simply feel liberated from the pressure to be politically correct.)

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