Do you cap and trade your good and bad deeds?

A friend of mine shared this story with me about a study that showed environmentalists were more likely to steal, cheat and lie, and it really fascinated me. It highlighted the idea of “compensatory ethics,” the idea that people act as if they have to (or can) balance the good and bad they do — if they do something good, they need (or can) to do something bad to compensate.

After reading the article, I read this opinion piece about not only why environmentalists might be inclined to do bad, but why anyone who does good deeds is more apt to also do bad deeds:

So when you do the right thing, but not to any particular person, we instinctively feel that we have earned some sort of pay back. Since no-one will do that for us, we opt for self-service reciprocation.

I think this is a great point, and it might explain why environmentalists especially are apt to fall off the moral bandwagon. Being environmentally conscious is about making choices and taking action that betters the planet and the people on the planet — this is a very broad and almost indirect action, as you can’t immediately see the results of your good deeds.

Because of this, some people might take some kind of ethical payment in terms of bad deed freebies — because no one is directly thanking you and/or you can’t immediately see the results, you pocket your good deed as if goes to a good deed bank, to be cashed out later in the event of a moral meltdown.

I would like to point out, however, that Mazar and Zhong’s study focused on people who bought green consumer products. I find it somewhat misleading to charactertize people — who in the study were random college students — as “environmentalists” when they were merely partaking in one form of environmentalism. From the text of the Guardian article, I thought the study was conducted with self-identifying environmentalists.

A few interesting points from the study are:

1. How people acted when exposed to green products versus how they acted when they purchased them. In the study, the two groups either looked at a catalog of green and conventional products, or they “purchased” them. Then, they were sent to a different room where they thought they would meet with another person. They were given $6 and told that whatever they took of the $6 would be theirs to keep, and the rest would go to the other person (who didn’t really exist).

Oddly enough, the people who just looked at the green products shared more of the money than those who “bought” the green products. It seems like being reminded of ethics and altuism influences one to be morally good, but actually doing something ethical influences someone to be morally bad because one feels like the previous good deed deserves a concrete reward.

This theory is backed up in this paper on compensatory ethics, to which Zhong was a co-author. Zhong et al. found that people’s ethical decisions were the inverse of previous ethical decisions — people who did a good deed were more apt to then do a bad deed, and people who did a bad deed were more apt to then do good deed. It’s as if the angel and the devil that each sit on one of our shoulders get out of whack and we can’t walk straight, so we get balance by indulging the side with the uneven number of deeds.  

2. People recognize environmentalism as ethical. One of the interesting things that the study found is that people do associate ethics with environmentalism — people think “green” is good. I guess I found this interesting because being exposed to environmentalism influenced people to act ethically, which kind of goes along with what I said last week about how behaviorial science can influence environmentalism.

I guess this is a double-edged sword, because people can be influenced by the ethicalness (is that a word?) of environmentalism to be more environmentally conscious, but then those people might become big-headed about their environmental activism and use it as an excuse to do bad. I think it also is like what I said earlier this week about health food — people assume that they can eat more junk food if they eat more healthy food, as if the two actions cancel each other out.

Perhaps this is the environmental or even good intentions problem — there people who do good deeds because they believe in living an ethical lifestyle, and there are people who do good deeds for other reasons — because they want to feel better when they do wrong or because they’ve done wrong, because they are pressured by society, because it’s simply “the right thing to do.” Because being an environmentalist is often a lifestyle change, I am inclined to think that environmentalists who truly adopt an ethical lifestyle would be less likely to steal, lie, etc.

Of course, everyone is different and has different motivations. Yeah, Al Gore has a big energy bill — I think that’s lame. I think that has to do with a big ego and the fact that really putting the environmental movement in the forefront gave him a mental ethical piggybank the size of a football field. But for every Al Gore there’s an Ed Begley Jr., someone who promotes their ethical beliefs and stays true to them in practice. I hope Ed Begley Jr. doesn’t rob a bank or murder someone tomorrow, because then my theory is really shot.

This study shows that we often learn ethical behavior through a reward system. Bad deeds get punishment, good deeds get rewards. Though environmental and other ethical good deeds often reward in terms of personal fulfillment, it seems like people want something in return — they reward their good behavior with a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for their conscience.

I obviously don’t think this study speaks for all environmentalists or all people who pursue an ethical lifestyle of any kind, but I do think the findings make sense and have been true for everyone at some point in their lives. Everybody has had the inner dialogue — I exercised today, so I can have this cookie; I never call off work, so I can play hookie and call in sick; I didn’t hold the door for that old woman, but I’ll hold the door for the next person — that reassures them of the rightness of their decisions.

It’s fascinating that people can be so absorbed in their own do-gooding that they convince themselves that they deserve, or have a right, to be a little bad. It’s definitely bizarre, surprisingly unsurprising in a way, and kind of makes me annoyed at environmentalists who think there is a cap-and-trade system for ethics.

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