Why Saints Commit Sins And Sinners Act Saintly

Feeling great because you’ve just acted morally? Don’t celebrate too soon. Research has found that when you feel that you’ve been extremely nice or ethical, you’ll probably grant yourself the permission to behave badly later. Here’s how to avoid that: (1) don’t rely on your feelings to tell you how nice you should be—make it a habit to do so; (2) focus on what you want to achieve (e.g., be a helpful friend), rather than what you’ve achieved (e.g., just helped a friend) so that you don’t get carried away by your feelings of success.

Researchers at Northwestern University believe that they have found the answer to how we regulate our moral or prosocial behaviour from moment to moment. For instance, a person may at one point feel that words alone cannot do justice to his or her niceness, but scientists have always been puzzled over why this same saintly person can flatly refuse to donate to charity the very next instance.

It appears that we are always striving to maintain a certain standard of moral self-worth (i.e., how nice and ethical we think we are). Most importantly, when our sense of self-worth deviates from this standard, we will subsequently behave in a compensatory manner—one that allows us to return to the default level.

Researchers investigated this compensatory and regulatory behaviour—they manipulated participants’ degree of self-worth by asking them to think of either positive or negative traits associated with themselves. Essentially, thinking of positive traits increases one’s self worth while negative traits decreases it. Participants who had higher self-worth subsequently donated less to charities than participants with lower self-worth.

In other words, we regulate our sense of self-worth (known as moral self-regulation) constantly. When we think we’re ethical (higher-than-default self-worth), we feel that we have the right to be bad for a moment (known as moral licensing). But when we think that we’ve been nasty (lower-than-default self-worth), we want to do something good to feel better about ourselves (known as moral cleansing).

Such findings may come as a surprise to many of us, but it certainly seems that we’re not so rational after all. We think that we consciously and rationally decide whether to help someone, but it is in reality not so straightforward; moreover, it is costly to always engage in prosocial behaviour. Remember, how morally you behave this moment could be due to what you have done just now.

Has this happened to you previously? Share your thoughts.

Source: Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. L. (2009). Sinning saints and saintly sinners: The paradox of moral self-regulation. Psychological Science, 20(4), 523–538. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02326.x

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