Last year, when a sex scandal swallowed the career of U.S. politician Eliot Spitzer, people were stunned by the moral crusader's sudden fall from grace.
But we shouldn't have been so surprised, suggests new research from Northwestern University in Illinois. In a study published this April in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that people with an elevated moral self-worth may be more prone to acting immorally in some realms of their life.
Mr. Spitzer is a good example of this, says lead researcher and graduate student Sonya Sachdeva.
She co-authored the study with psychology professor Douglas Medin and doctorate student Rumen Iliev.
In his public life, the ex-New York governor and former attorney general was dogged in his pursuit of white-collar criminals, and was even dubbed the "Sheriff of Wall Street" for his crusading against corruption. Privately, however, the father of three was cheating on his wife and engaging in an illicit prostitution ring.
Ms. Sachdeva suggests that people have an internal morality scale that needs constant equalization.
For example, if someone considered themselves immoral, they may strive toward altruism.
Conversely, if someone were to consider themselves morally superior, then they may give themselves licence to act unethically or less charitable in certain cases.
"It's that kind of compensation behaviour that led me to think that maybe there's something to this," Ms. Sachdeva says.
She sought to link "moral licensing" with the concept of "moral cleansing," the latter being a well-documented phenomenon where people engage in moral acts to effectively cancel out bad deeds. Forty-six Northwestern undergraduate students were divided into three groups. The first was asked to write a story about himself or herself, using positive words such as "caring" and "generous," while the second group did the same but applying negative terms such as "greed" and "mean." The third acted as a control, using neutral words.
After completing the test, participants were asked to donate money to charity. The group that reflected upon themselves positively offered the least amount of money, giving about $1 (U.S.), while the group associating themselves with negative traits was the most generous, donating about $5. The control group hovered in the middle, giving about $3.
"I think what this says is that engaging in moral behaviour is inherently costly," Ms. Sachdeva says. "Also what I think this shows is there's a specific motivation in why we engage in some sorts of moral behaviour, and that might be to feel better about ourselves or get that warm glow that comes with behaving morally. If we've already achieved that warm glow then maybe there's no need to spend that effort."
Ms. Sachdeva acknowledges the study draws its conclusions from a rather small sample group. Prof. Medin says the report is just a first step, and future research is needed to determine how widespread moral licensing tendencies are.
To that end, the researchers are conducting a similar study in India to examine how different cultures respond to similar moral situations, and Ms. Sachdeva is doing research into whether people are more inclined to cheat if they feel morally licensed.
For now, Ms. Sachdeva hopes her research will cause people to question that warm glow associated with moral behaviour - and how it may affect their future actions.
"I think it's kind of a cautionary story at this point," she says. "Do good but don't feel that great about it because that may lead to worse things in the future."