Resource Type: Behavior Tendencies: Domains:

Moral licensing or self moral licensing is a cognitive tendency that leads people to behave unethically without feeling guilt for doing so, if they have done enough ethical action prior to this unethical behavior.

A good overview of this effect is provided by Merritt et al1

When under the threat that their next action might be (or appear to be) morally dubious, individuals can derive confidence from their past moral behavior, such that an impeccable track record increases their propensity to engage in otherwise suspect actions. Such moral self-licensing (Monin & Miller, 2001) occurs when past moral behavior makes people more likely to do potentially immoral things without worrying about feeling or appearing immoral. We argue that moral self-licensing occurs because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard. For example, when people are confident that their past behavior demonstrates compassion, generosity, or a lack of prejudice, they are more likely to act in morally dubious ways without fear of feeling heartless, selfish, or bigoted. – source

This effect is particularly important to take note of for real-life situations where there is an advisor-advisee relationship or for situations where customers are expected to make their own choices with no interactions with a human agent, but by reading the information provided and relying on the disclosure of key information.

  1. Merritt, A. C., Effron, D. A., & Monin, B. (2010). Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(5), 344–357. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00263.x (link)
2015-07-03T11:18:29+00:00

About the Author:

Julien Le Nestour
Applied behavioral scientist & international consultant — I am using the results and latest advances from the behavioral sciences—specifically behavioral economics—to help companies solve strategic issues. I am working with both start-ups and Fortune 500 groups, and across industries, though I have specific domain knowledge in banking, asset management, B2B and consumer IT, SAAS and e-commerce industries.

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