morals

Too saintly? A little sin might be in order.

NORTHWESTERN (US)—A new study offers provocative insights into how people with ample moral self-worth in one aspect of their lives can slip into immoral behavior in other areas to balance out all that goodness.

Think, for example, of that sugar- and fat-laden concoction you wolf down after an especially vigorous run, says Douglas Medin, professor of psychology at Northwestern University. “That pretty much eliminates the benefits of running an extra 20 minutes,” he notes.

Conversely, the study shows, people who engage in immoral behavior cleanse themselves with good work.

Other studies have shown the moral-cleansing effect, but this new model shows that the cleansing also has to do with restoring an ideal level of moral self-worth. In other words, when people operate above or below a certain level of moral self-worth, they instinctively push back in the opposite direction to reach an internally regulated set point of goodness.

“If people feel too moral,” says study coauthor Sonya Sachdeva, “they might not have sufficient incentive to engage in moral action because of the costliness of being good.”

An abundance of research shows that people are motivated both by the warm glow that results from good behavior and recognition of costly, long-term consequences of immoral behavior on the people close to them and society at large.

But the Northwestern study for the first time shows that perhaps people whose glow is much warmer than average are more likely to regulate behavior by acting in an opposite manner or passing up opportunities to behave morally.

“Imagine a line on a plane,” Sachdeva says. “If you go above the line, you feel pressure to come back down. The only way you can come back down is either by refraining from good social behavior or by actively engaging in immoral behavior.”

“If you do extra good deeds, you’re motivated to come back down on that internal barometer,” adds study coauthor Rumen Iliev.

The researchers stress cross-cultural differences in their model, suspecting, for example, if they ran tests in India, where people’s actions are more interdependent, the results would be different.

Findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.

Northwestern University news: www.northwestern.edu/newscenter

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