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When good deeds lead to bad deeds – Moral Self-Licensing

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast, Revisionist History, debuted with an episode entitled The Lady Vanishes. One of the major themes of the episode is the perplexing notion of moral self-licensing. This occurs when a person exhibits progress in some issue of social or moral importance only to result in an increase in contradictory behaviors. In other words, when we do something good, we feel good about what we have done, this leads to feeling an increase in our moral standing (a moral surplus so to speak), which then leads to a feeling of freedom to act in ways that contradict that standing (moral deficit). It’s the “I gave at the office so I can now ignore those in need” mentality.  Almost like earning enough good will to spend it on immoral actions. This can be seen in small ways each day (“I feel good about having a salad for lunch so I’ll go ahead and splurge on dinner and dessert tonight.”) or in larger, systemic ways (the firm hires its first female partner but an internal sexist environment intensifies).

This is not to say that positive behavior is always paired with its opposite. Many times we are motivated to act in positive ways because we are motivated by a guiding principle or value. I like spending time with my family, not because I fear social criticism if I don’t, but because I value my family and enjoy the time I get to spend with them. Moral self-licensing is more likely to occur when we behave in ways that are a stretch from our typical behavior. This behavior is motivated by a fear of social judgment, in an area where we feel some social pressure, or a “should” statement (I should recycle more).

So if you want to make positive change over time and avoid the dilemma of moral self-licensing, how do you turn a positive behavior from an exception to a norm?

  1. Be honest with yourself: You don’t get any points for deluding yourself into thinking that you are morally superior to anyone else. Recognize what your biases are (especially the ones that you do not want to hold onto). Once your acknowledge them, you can do something meaningful about them.
  2. Establish a deeper reason for doing good: Social pressure can be a motivator to do something different while others are looking, but it is not a sustainable reason for making long lasting change. Give yourself a reason for doing good that is tied to a deeply held value or belief.
  3. Make it a habit: Establish a pattern of behavior that is consistent with the positive behavior you want as your norm.
  4. Connect with others: Making sustained positive behavior change is easier when you are doing it with others. Find like-minded people who will support your positive changes and remind you of deeper reasons to continue.

The more you behavior consistently and feel a deep connection to the reasons why you behavior that way, behavioral change becomes easier to maintain.


Shawn Healy, PhD



CATEGORIES: Career & Practice Concerns | Depression

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