We might think it’s virtuous to
buy things that are environmentally-
friendly: recycled paper saves trees,
natural cleaners cause less pollution.
But new research finds that when we’re
good, we sometimes use that to excuse
being bad. Julie Grant reports:
We might think it’s virtuous to buy things that are environmentally-friendly: recycled paper saves trees, natural cleaners cause less pollution. But new research finds that when we’re good, we sometimes use that to excuse being bad. Julie Grant reports.
Nina Mazar wants more people to buy green products. She’s a marketing professor at the University of Toronto business school. And she thinks people should spend money on things that aren’t harmful to the environment.
But Mazar had some concerns. Research in other areas shows that if people do one thing they define as moral or virtuous – say, helping others or being politically-correct – they are more likely to transgress in other areas.
Mazar wanted to see if the same was true for buying green products.
“In our society, it seems at least, that green consumption is being moralized. And we thought, well, if it’s being moralized, maybe it can have some negative effects.”
That’s the key: if we moralize one behavior, Mazar says, we’re more likely later to do something negative.
So, first they did a survey, and found that, yes, people believe that consumers who buy environmentally-friendly and organic products are more likely to be ethical, cooperative and altruistic.
Then they tested it. They gave money to two groups of college students – one group was asked to buy products in a regular grocery store, the other in a store with mostly green products.
Afterwards, Mazar and her team set up a computer game. The students could see how much money they were making as they played – and they could easily cheat . When the game was over, they were told to take the amount they’d won out of an envelope.
“And what we found was that people who purchased in the green store, as opposed to the conventional store, cheated more on that particular subsequent task, and they actually took out more money out of the envelope than they were supposed to. So not only did they cheat, they also stole money from us.”
If students were totally accurate, they could have won $2.07. Those who had purchased green products went home with $2.90 in their pockets.
Mazar says this finding about green consumption fits right in with the theory called moral regulation or licensing.
“Whenever we engage in virtuous behavior, whenever we had done a good deed, we get a boost in our moral self worth, which will license us further down the road to transgress.”
This has been studied for years in the opposite direction. People who do something bad subsequently do good things to cleanse themselves.
But researcher Sonya Sachdeva says lots of new evidence is coming in that moral cleansing works both ways. She’s a PhD student at Northwestern University. And says she noticed this in herself when she started taking the bus to school.
“And at first, when I would take the bus, it took forever and I just wasn’t used to it. But the fact that I thought that I was doing this really good thing made me feel morally licensed.”
Sachdeva says each person has different things that make them feel this way.
Everyone in the green consumption study was a college student. Sachdeva says they might not be used to buying green products, so they get a boost of self worth when they do. And then might feel morally licensed to transgress: to cheat and steal.
But she says people who buy green and organic products all the time might not get that same boost of self worth and so might not have the backslide. In the same way her attitude toward riding the bus has changed.
“But over time, now that I’ve been taking the bus regularly for the past couple of years, I no longer get that same kind of warm glow feeling, because I’m used to it and my reference point has changed.”
The researchers say there is something practical we can learn from this. If we want people to be more environmentally friendly, the message should not be that be that this will make us better, more virtuous people. But it’s simply what we should do.
For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.