Did anyone else listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series earlier this year, Revisionist History? I’ve been thinking about one of the episodes over the past week. It’s the first, The Lady Vanishes. If you haven’t heard it, you can listen to it on the website. In it, Gladwell looks at examples of female achievement and how it should have broken a glass ceiling, but instead they remained a one-off.
I won’t spoil his stories by telling you his examples, but the phenomenon he investigates is called ‘moral licensing’. That occurs when we do something good, and use that as permission to do something wrong. A Stanford study into the concept defined it thus:
“Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.”
In one early experiment, participants were invited to shop online at either a regular store or an eco-store. They were then asked to play a little game where they could anonymously divide a sum of money between themselves and a stranger. Those who had shopped at the green store were more likely to cheat and give themselves more money. Browsing the green products offered a kind of ‘moral offset’, a sort of virtuous credit chip that they could cash in to make it okay to rip off a stranger.
Moral licensing plays a role in the rebound effects that plague the energy efficiency world. I just bought a new washing machine, after ours rattled itself off to the junkyard. It’s got a high energy rating, and I will be keeping an eye on how we use it. Research has shown that when people buy energy efficient appliances, they then use them more than they did before and wipe out any savings. The good deed of getting the more efficient model gives the user permission to be more profligate in other ways.
In his podcast, Gladwell makes passing mention of Hilary Clinton, but doesn’t elaborate. (He has done in interviews, see below.) What I’ve been thinking about is whether moral licensing has played out at a large scale in the last couple of weeks. Psychologists have shown that when people are given an opportunity to prove they aren’t prejudiced, they are more likely to then make a prejudiced choice afterwards. This has been tested in experiments involving hypothetical job applications with black and white candidates.
What if a nation has just had an opportunity to demonstrate on the world stage that it is progressive and unprejudiced, by voting for the first black US president? It proves that Americans aren’t racist, that institutional racism is a thing of the past. Then with that moral credit subconsciously banked, perhaps some people feel able to vote for a president with white nationalist leanings.
I’m not suggesting that moral licensing offers us a comprehensive explanation of what’s happening right now, by any means. There are all kinds of sides to what is going on at the moment, including globalisation and inequality. But perhaps it might go a little way to explaining one element the story – why one of the most progressive and promising moments of US race relations has been so followed by its opposite.