Moral Credentialing: Using Good Deeds to Justify Bad Behavior (Podcast)

Moral Credentialing: Using Good Deeds to Justify Bad Behavior (Podcast)


>>HOST: Welcome to Outsmarting
Human Minds, the podcast on understanding the mind to make
better decisions in life and at work. So what are the kinds of good
things that you think you do in your everyday life?>>SA-KIERA HUDSON: Well, I turn
in my assignments on time, or I give soup to a sick friend. I help
old ladies cross the street.>>HOST: Do you really?>>SA-KIERA HUDSON:
Sometimes, with their bags.>>HOST: Huh! I recently had a conversation
with Sa-Kiera Hudson, a member of Harvard’s
Psychology Department. We were talking about what it
means to be good, which pretty quickly turned into
a discussion about being bad. So what’s the—not the problem
with doing good things, but I guess a common misconception
about doing good things?>>SA-KIERA HUDSON: I think when
we think about doing good things that it sets us up really well
for the future. That when I do a good thing now, that means I’m
going to do good things in the future. But
that’s not quite how it works.>>HOST: We don’t
just do good things and then more good things. Instead, we track our
good behaviors and use them to justify our bad ones.>>SA-KIERA HUDSON: So, if I do a
good thing like going to the gym, now that justifies some of the
bad things I might do after the gym—like eating an entire pint
of ice-cream or sitting on my couch for three days
and binge-watching a TV show.>>HOST: So all these
things sound really relatable.>>SA-KIERA
HUDSON: Yes, yes they are. We all do them
in a lot of different domains. This might be kind of sad but
I — [Laughter] I very carefully track how much work I’ve done,
and I justify not doing work based on how much work I just
did, so it’s like “oh yeah, I just, like, went to a
meeting,” or “I answered one email. It was an important email. It was a long email, so now I
can take a break for X amount of time.”>>HOST: Should we save
broadcasting this until after you graduate?>>SA-KIERA HUDSON: [Laughter]>>HOST: Sa-Kiera said I could
air this, because her advisors probably already know this
happens—because they probably do it, too.
We all do, in different ways. Psychologists
call this Moral Credentialing. It’s not conscious. It can even go against our best
interests or the things that we consciously believe.
But we do it all the time. The question is: does it matter? As I said during the interview:
“So, all of the examples that we’ve talked about so far, like
honestly, who cares if I eat a lot of ice-cream? If that harms
anyone it mostly just harms me.” And that’s where
scientific experiments come in. They show
us how the consequences of Moral Credentialing can be bigger. For instance, a study by Khan and
Dhar show that we’re more likely to indulge ourselves and buy
expensive things after donating to charity. Another study conducted
in 2010 found that after we buy eco-friendly products,
we’re more likely to behave in unethical ways. And Sa-Kiera
brings up another point:>>SA-KIERA HUDSON: It’s not
just for personal behaviors that this plays out. It
also plays out in the workplace.>>HOST: So here’s one study
that shows how this can work. Psychologists Monin & Miller
at Princeton gave hundreds of people a stereotypically
male job description. So, this is something in the
building industry that involves contracts, negotiations
and working with foremen and contractors. And then they asked
these people “would this job be better suited for men or women?”>>SA-KIERA HUDSON:
Now if you’re like me, I would immediately go, “ooh, this is
a tricky situation.” And I think many of us might go like “no, you know,
they’re equally likely to be in this position,” because
we don’t want to appear sexist.>>HOST: So that was the test. How will people respond
to this question? And here’s how scientists tested
the power of moral credentials. Before presenting the job
description, they showed half the people other statements—things
like “men are more emotionally suited for
politics than are most women;” “the best job for most women is
something like a cook, nurse or teacher;” or “most women are not
really smart,” and then asked them, “is this
statement right or wrong?” Pretty simple question.>>SA-KIERA HUDSON: Now what the
research showed is that when I’m able to say something
is really sexist, I now have a moral credential. I’m actually more likely to say
that the man is more appropriate, because clearly I’m not sexist
because look at this good deed that I just did.>>HOST: And it’s not
just gender. We give ourselves credentials for everything, from the philanthropic companies we might
work for, to the candidates we endorse for political office. In another hiring study Benoit
Monin and his colleagues found that people who endorsed Barack
Obama this was back in 2009 were more likely to endorse hiring
white over black candidates later on. Look, this is not intentional. We’re not trying to find ways to
give ourselves a free pass or do things that we shouldn’t do and
don’t even believe in. But after doing something good, we seem to morally relax. So the question is: what can we
do about our moral credentials? How do we outsmart our minds? As a listener I hear all this
and I’m like, “I just better not do any good thing ever again in
my life.” So what’s your response to something like that?>>SA-KIERA HUDSON: Well,
that’s not the takeaway message! That’s just anarchy and chaos. What we should instead do
is really pay attention to what we’re using our gold stars for. So if your job is to help people—
so you might be a doctor or a social worker—it’s really
easy for us to come up with situations that we can put
in our “do-good” bank that we can then spend after our
job on something that might not be so good.>>HOST:
So that’s the first thing. Be aware of whether your
day-to-day activities set you up to collect these
gold stars for good behavior. Another thing
to watch out for is language.>>SA-KIERA HUDSON: Anything
that sort of uses our past behaviors
to justify our current ones. “Well we just hired a woman. We just
hired an ethnic minority.” “I personally just
drafted a diversity statement.” “The pool of applicants was just
so diverse, therefore the outcome must have been fair.”>>HOST: Things like this are
clues that Moral Credentialing might be taking place. And the last thing we talked
about was how to sever that link between
past and present behavior. We can’t give ourselves amnesia
for the good things we’ve done, but a simple thing to do is
decide what your gold stars get you ahead of time. Give yourself a cheat day on
your diet or schedule a massage or time off
after a hard work week. If you have these rewards built
in, it’s less likely that you’ll spend them somewhere else. Ultimately, we want to make the
best decisions for ourselves, as well as for the companies we
work with and society at large. Knowing that our choices are
made with no strings attached to the past
gets us one step closer. Outsmarting Human Minds
is a program founded by Mahzarin Banaji, devoted to improving
decision-making using insights from psychological science. Support for Outsmarting Human
Minds was provided by PwC and Harvard University. This episode was developed by
Olivia Kang and Mahzarin Banaji and featured Sa-Kiera Hudson. Sound editing and
mixing was done by Evan Younger. Music was composed
by Miracles of Modern Science. For all studies
sited in this podcast go to outsmartinghumanminds.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *