Monday, August 17, 2009

Doing the right thing?

I have been reading a lot of research lately that are in different domains but have one common finding that seems to appear over and over again. When we do something that makes us feel virtuous, we feel entitled to go out and do something less virtuous afterwards. Sometimes this is harmless but other times it can be really serious.

A harmless example: When you eat something healthy, you are more likely to eat something unhealthy afterwards. So for example, research shows that when you select a healthy main course from a menu, you are more likely to order unhealthy sides, drinks and desserts with it. You are also more likely to eat unhealthy food in later meals. The problem here is that in the end, you wind up eating more calories at the end of the day then if you selected something neutral in the first place.

Another harmless example: When grocery shopping, when you put a healthy food in your cart, you are more likely to go to the less healthy food aisles and put unhealthy food into your cart. So for every apple you buy, you also get the Oreos.

But then there are the serious examples. Another study gave people ethics scenarios and had multiple choice answers for what the person would do. If they answered ethically for question A, they were more likely to answer unethically for question B. They mixed up the order of the questions for each person to cancel out the differences in the scenarios. So it seems that acting ethically makes you feel like an ethical person – like ethicality is your true nature. So then, you can act unethically and it doesn’t count because it’s not your nature it’s just a choice you made.

The same thing happened when people gave to charity. They were more likely to do unethical things afterwards. Apparently, giving to charity makes you feel like you are a “good” person. So now, you can do whatever you want. I suspect Bernie Madoff had a lot of this in him.

Some of these happen in the reverse also. When people started out behaving unethically, they were more likely to do an ethical thing later. Apparently, they felt bad about themselves and had to make up for it. They tried to see the original unethical act as the “choice” and the later ethical act as their “true nature.”

I am sure that there are some people who don't take advantage of this balancing game and are virtuous all the time. But what bothers me is that this is largely unconscious (the subjects of the studies didn't realize they were doing this). And it is so easy too. All you need to do is one virtuous thing up front, and then you can keep doing less virtuous things forever, always thinking about the virtuous thing as your "true nature" and rationalizing the rest. The human brain is set up to facilitate this kind of behavior, so it is much more common than you might think.

Most of the people reading this do it without even realizing. Even you!