…affirming a moral identity leads people to feel licensed to act immorally. However, when moral identity is threatened, moral behavior is a means to regain some lost self-worth.
Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. L. (2009). Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation. [Article]. Psychological Science, 20(4), 523-528. Link here
In our quest to understand why people behave badly we have examined several theoretical frames, most of which concern "personality" or "drive" -like constructs. So, a few weeks ago I posted a paper on self-control versus impulsive "systems" (that we never got to discuss in lab). That "dual-systems" paper takes adopts a quasi-drive model, to suggest that overt behavior represents a compromise between two incompatible motivations. The relative strength of self-control versus impulse drives controls how well we self-regulate our sexual, dietary or other appetites.
Similarly, the "self-regulation as a muscle" view has it that self-regulatory action is a limited resource that literally gets fatigued as it is expended. In this view we self-regulate as much as we are able – since we really do want to be healthy and regulated – but at some point we just get tired.
Moving away from drive or capacity models toward a more cognitive view invokes an escape perspective. This may better characterize our participants' struggles in resisting unsafe sex, drug use, or other highly tempting behaviors. Here the conflict is not so much between regulatory versus impulse drives, but between our self-perception as a healthy / good / in-control person, versus our temptation to do those bad things that we really desire.
This view may articulate with older cognitive consistency models from social psychology. These views – best articulated in Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance – assume that we want to have a positive self-perception, and that to do so we must view our behaviors as being consistent with our values. If I both value smartness and think I am smart, but see myself doing something patently stupid, I may blame that behavior on someone else (I was talked into it!!) so as to maintain my positive self-perception. Similarly B.B. King's excuse for cheating: "…honey, you know it don't count if I was high." ("How Blues can you get").
Sachdeva et al. (2009) present an interesting variation on this theme in terms of moral behavior. When participants are primed to think of themselves in positive, moral terms, they are less likely to actually show moral behavior (contribute to a charity, recycle) than if they have no prime. Alternately, those primed with a threat to their self-worth end up showing more altruistic behavior.
The common denominator is that people have a sort of "set point" for self-worth. If they are given a "surplus" of self-worth (by being asked to recall a string of positive self-descriptions) they have self-worth to burn, and are therefore licensed to be self-centered for a while. In contrast, if their self-worth is threatened they are in deficit. They can restore the balance by doing something nice to prove to themselves that they are good after all.
This reflects a common problem noted in the environmental behavior literature. People will engage in some trivial environmental behavior – buying a carbon offset – and use it to rationalize a larger environmental sin (unnecessary flights, driving instead of walking, etc.) The person's self-worth (or even sense of moral superiority) remains intact by doing a little good to offset a larger bad.
Is this a variation on cognitive escape? How much to people rationalize their problem behaviors not by literally escaping (e.g., via drug use, sensation seeking, etc.), but by maintaining their self-worth via this "offsetting" or "licensing" behavior.
If I have been "good" for a week can I get high and have unsafe sex on Saturday? Have I "earned" that, despite my knowledge that such rationalizations are medical nonsense? Does this only apply if my "moral set point" is relatively high? – what if I just view myself as a loser?
This view may lend itself to intervention applications. We assume that one antidote to escape motivation is self-awareness – getting people to actually see what they are doing when they, e.g., use drugs to escape or regulate affect. Might behavioral interventions also include explicit cognitive dissonance exercises?