Social Report for Psychology Term Paper

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Moral Licensing and Morality:

Does Being Good Make You Bad?

This study focuses on 107 psychology students living in Australia for more than a year. The students were given a moral licensing crime task with two potential suspects; one of whom was more likely to be guilty. For the control group, both suspects were Anglo Australians; for the moral licensing group, the less suspicious suspect was Aboriginal. The hypotheses were that: moral licensing will not impact explicit moral self-concept; moral licensing will have a negative impact on implicit moral self-concept; moral licensing will make participants less racially sensitive; and moral licensing will make participants less likely to volunteer than the control participants. There was no significant different between the control condition and the moral licensing condition for explicit moral self-concept or for racism sensitivity. Participants in the control condition scored higher on the test for implicit moral self-concept and were more likely to volunteer than participants in the licensing condition.


Morality is a social construct, with individual deriving their ethical mores from social and cultural constructs. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that moral behavior is not determined only by an individual's moral and ethical beliefs, but also on how the individual feels his or her actions will be perceived by others. Moral licensing refers to the notion that others' prior behavior can have an impact on an individual's subsequent behavior. "Moral self-licensing occurs because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard" (Merritt et al., 2012). This feeling of security appears to encourage people not to question their internal moral impulses and compare them to cultural norms and standards about behavior, which, rather than increasing their likelihood to engage in moral behavior, actually increases their likelihood to engage in immoral behavior.

Moral licensing is particularly evident when one examines bigotry and prejudiced behavior. The theory is that people are more willing, rather than less willing, to "express prejudiced attitudes when their group members prior behavior has established non-prejudiced credentials (Kouchaki, 2011). This effect is exacerbated when the individual identifies highly with group members. Moreover, the effect occurs even when the individual is not involved in the original non-prejudicial decision-making process.

Aquino and Reed examined the social and cultural influences on moral psychology. They did so by examining the associations between an individual's view of moral identity, their thoughts about morality, and their actual behavior. What they discovered was that moral self-concepts, which are shaped in part by social and cultural influences on moral psychology, can help explain individual moral conduct (Aquino & Reed, 2002). This is important when one considers how dominant ethnic groups respond to racist or non-racist treatment of minorities. Although the pervading social and cultural norms suggest that racism is unacceptable, they reinforce stereotypes that suggest that minority members are inferior.

The result of these internalized stereotypes appears to be that majority group members feel virtuous when they do not engage in racism. This seems to have to direct effects on individual behavior. First, people seek a moral license to act in negative ways if they have acted morally prior to engaging in the immoral behavior, particularly if they had the opportunity to behave in immoral ways (Effron et al., 2012). What is interesting is that the moral licensing effect seems to occur even when the audience is unaware of the individual's prior non-prejudiced behavior (Monin & Miller, 2001). Furthermore, when people are made to feel insecure about their morality, they will not only point to having engaged in prior moral behavior, but will also suggest that the prior immoral alternatives were greater than those that actually existed (Effron et al., 2012).

Furthermore, research suggests that explicit measures of an individual's moral personality cannot predict specific moral actions (Perugini & Leone, 2009). Instead of using explicit measures of moral personality, using implicit measures of moral personality seem to have greater predictive power of moral behavior (Perugini & Leone, 2009). To look at implicit measures of moral behavior, Perugini and Leone developed an Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure Moral vs. Immoral self-concept, and discovered that the IAT was highly predictive of actual moral behavior (2009).

This study will examine the relationship between moral licensing, explicit moral self-concept, implicit moral-self-concept, racism sensitivity, and pro-social behavior in non-Aboriginal students who have lived in Australia for at least a year. Some of the participants will be exposed to a moral licensing activity, which will give them an opportunity to engage in a non-racist manner when determining which suspect committed a crime. They will then be compared to the control group when looking at to compare how each group rates on the dependent variables: explicit moral self-concept, implicit moral-self-concept, racism sensitivity, and pro-social behavior. The belief is that, rather than encouraging pro-social, highly moral behavior, the opportunity to engage in a non-racist behavior will encourage the participants to be less moral. The hypotheses are: H1: Moral licensing will not impact explicit moral self-concept; H2: Moral licensing will have a negative impact on implicit moral self-concept; H3: Moral licensing will make participants less racially sensitive; and H4: Moral licensing will make participants less likely to volunteer than the control participants.


This study examined the relationship between moral licensing and four different concepts: explicit moral self-concept, implicit moral self-concept, racial sensitivity, and volunteerism. The participants were either in a control condition, in which both suspects in a moral licensing crime vignette were Anglo, or a moral licensing condition, in which one suspect was Anglo-Australian and the other was Aboriginal. In the vignette the participants had not seen the suspect's face, but were able to provide a general description of the suspect to the police. Therefore, the participants had no real input on the suspect's race and were forced to choose between a suspect with no alibi, a history of petty theft, and significant property on his person when he was detained, and a suspect who was at work at the time of the crime, no previous record, and only a small amount of property on him at the time of the arrest. This provided the participants, not only with the opportunity to make a non-racist assumption about crime, but actually made the non-racist choice the most likely choice. Making that choice then provided them with the moral license to go forward and then engage in less moral behavior.

The hypothesis was that moral licensing would not impact explicit moral concept. This is because explicit moral self-concept has not been shown to be an accurate predictor of moral behavior. Measures of explicit moral concept focus on how a person internalizes qualities that are considered moral in individuals. However, these scores only reflect people's self-image of their morality, which may not have any relationship to how they actually believe. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the moral licensing exercise did not impact how subjects rated themselves on the explicit moral self-concept measure.

However, there are better measures of moral self-concept that go deeper than most explicit measures and actually examine the degree to which individuals associate their self-concept with morality. The IAT is believed to be highly predictive of actual behavior in individuals. Given that moral licensing has been shown to result in people engaging in less moral behavior, it was logical to conclude that moral licensing would also result in participants having lower scores on the IAT. Furthermore, the IAT does not just measure how a person self-identifies in terms of morality. There is a strong social and cultural pressure to self-identify as a moral person, rather than an immoral person. Instead, the IAT focuses on a different measure to examine moral self-concept: reaction time. Participants who respond more quickly to moral compatible traits rather than immoral incompatible traits are believed to have a stronger implicit moral self-concept, perhaps because the moral identification is more intrinsic and does not require contemplation. The results of this study demonstrated that moral licensing could have a negative impact on this measure of implicit moral self-concept. Such a result suggests that moral licensing not only impacts how a person behaves, but also how that person views his or her own behavior.

Given that research has shown that moral licensing will make participants more likely to engage in prejudiced behavior after engaging in a non-prejudiced behavior, the assumption was that moral licensing would make participants less racially sensitive. A decrease in racial sensitivity would suggest that subsequent racially-biased behavior was due to the participants feeling free to ignore the social pressure to investigate whether or not a particular behavior was racially insensitive. Instead, this study suggests that moral licensing does not make participants less racially sensitive. Therefore, it seems likely that subsequent prejudiced behavior is a matter of conscious choice, not due to neglecting societal norms.

Finally, the participants were assessed on their likelihood to volunteer. Volunteerism is seen as a positive, moral, pro-social behavior. Moreover, it is a pro-social behavior that is not based on racial prejudices or…

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