Marie-Hélène Budworth

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, specializing in learning, development & motivation.

Marie-Hélène Budworth

Moral licensing and the state of America

February 16th, 2017 · No Comments · Uncategorized

A phenomenon has been observed in the social sciences whereby people who initially behave in a moral way subsequently exhibit behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic.  The tendency has been demonstrated in a range of important contexts such as hiring, charitable donations, and consumer behaviour.  For example, if Tom donates to charity today, he might find it less problematic to ‘forget’ to claim some of his income on a tax submission tomorrow.  While this might be an intuitive finding, it is surprising to social science researchers who have largely found that people want to behave in ways that are consistent with their values and with their past behaviours.  Yet, we still see this exception across a range of domains.

In an incredibly interesting study, Daniel Effron of the London School of Business demonstrated that people were more likely to favour White job applicants over Black job applicants after having had the opportunity to endorse Barack Obama as president.  In other words, supporting Obama gave these individuals moral credit that they could then use to justify future prejudiced behaviour.

I have been thinking about this study and the general idea of psychological licensing broadly, and moral licensing in particular, as I have been watching what has gone on in the United States.  The politics of conservatism and liberalism aside, there has been a heightening and highlighting of ‘us versus them’ tensions.  The current US government ran on a platform of and has introduced policy to ‘build walls’ and ‘ban’ entire groups of people from the country in the name of nationalism and security.    This is such an incredible shift from the previous administration that it has left me searching for answers.  I don’t believe there is one single answer.

Moral licensing is an individual level phenomenon.  It cannot be used to explain a nation’s political shift.  Nor would I categorize an entire government as the ‘moral choice.’  Yet, I do believe there is something compelling here.  Could we have had Trump without Obama?  Could Trump have followed McCain?  Doubtful.


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