Do Good Deeds Make People Act Bad?

When People Do Something ‘Good’ They Feel Licensed to Do Something ‘Bad’ Later

Ethical moral self-licensing » When People Do Something 'Good' They Feel Licensed to Do Something 'Bad' Later Being—and being seen—as moral, ethical, and principled is an important part of people’s self-concept.

Social psychologists have studied the tendency of people using their prior moral actions to license future morally questionable actions. According to these studies, prior to making morally important decisions, people may survey their previous moral actions. If they recollect engaging in virtuous moral behavior in the past, they may subsequently become less bothered about engaging in morally questionable behavior.

Prior Actions Can Affect Individuals’ Future Behavior

Past good deeds can license people to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, if not problematic—behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral. The deep-seated human tendency that makes people feel entitled to do something less moral because they’ve done something moral previously is called “moral self-licensing.”

Psychologists reason that people’s previous actions may cause them to feel more self-possessed in their own moral self-worth. As a result, this claim licenses their choice of a more self-indulgent moral choice.

Conversely, when people appear immoral or devious to others, they subsequently take up positive actions to restore their moral image. Psychologists identify this as “compensation or cleansing.”

When ‘Good’ Behavior Supposedly Counteracts Doing Something ‘Bad’

Moral self-licensing has been demonstrated in several realms of human judgment. However, in my opinion, much of the cause-and-effect narratives seem ambiguous. For instance,

  • In a set of pioneering studies, participants who established their racial non-prejudiced attitudes by endorsing President Obama or through selecting a black person for a consulting firm job were subsequently more likely to make pro-white decisions.
  • In one test, after subjects were given a chance to condemn sexist statements, they were found to be subsequently more likely to support hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.
  • One study on consumer behavior suggested that shoppers who brought their own bags felt licensed to buy more junk food.

Contribution Ethic and “Prospective Moral Licensing”

A phenomenon related to moral self-licensing is “contribution ethic” or the “moral credential effect.” When people feel they’ve done their fair share for some noble cause, they decide they need do no more. In one study, after people participated in a pro-social deeds (e.g., doing something good for the cause of the environment,) they felt licensed to behave more selfishly later (e.g., donating less to an environmental program). Another study showed that people who drive hybrid cars tend to get more tickets and cause more accidents than do drivers of conventional cars.

Some studies have suggested that just thinking about past moral behavior or writing about oneself as a moral person can decrease the likelihood of subsequently performing altruistic acts—such as decreasing contributions to charitable causes or being less engaging in cooperative behavior towards friends and colleagues.

Finally, simply planning to do good later can allow people to be bad now. Some studies suggest that when people merely plan to engage in a moral behavior in the future, they feel licensed to respond in a morally questionable way in the present. Psychologists identify this as “prospective moral licensing.”

Idea for Impact: Past Moral Deeds Could Make People Do Morally Wrong Things

Part of becoming wise to the ways of the world and getting along with people is understanding the many peculiarities of human behavior. Learning why people feel licensed to engage in potentially immoral behavior given their demonstrated moral behavior allows for a better understanding of the world in which we live.

Lessons from Dwight Eisenhower: Authentic Leaders Demonstrate Accountability

In a previous article about how you can control just your efforts and not the outcomes of those efforts, I detailed Dwight Eisenhower’s weather-induced dilemma on the eve of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

The Success of the Normandy Invasion Was Not Entirely in Eisenhower’s Control

Despite a year of intense planning and preparation under Eisenhower’s leadership, the Allied invasion’s success ultimately depended on the weather across the English Channel. Their landings hinged on suitable weather—something entirely beyond their control.

General Eisenhower addressing American paratroopers on 5-June-1944 before the Battle of Normandy.

Eisenhower tentatively planned to send his troops across the English Channel on 5-June. On 4-June, however, the troops predicted cloudy skies, rain, and heavy seas that threatened the invasion. Although the following day’s weather was not necessarily ideal, it was comparatively more suitable than the 5-June, so Eisenhower postponed the invasion by a day. If he did not invade on 6-June, the tides would not favor an invasion for another two weeks, which would possibly give the Germans enough time to get wind of the Allies’ plan.

Early in the morning of 5-June, Eisenhower gathered his advisers’ and military officers’ opinions on whether to launch the attack despite the less-than-suitable weather. He sat quietly in deep contemplation. One of his advisers later recalled, “I never realized before, the loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision has to be taken, with full knowledge that failure or success rests on his judgment alone.”

After five minutes, Eisenhower gazed at his advisers and said, “Well, we’ll go!”

With those words, Eisenhower launched the D-Day invasion of Europe on 6-June. After issuing those marching orders, events passed from Eisenhower’s control. He then realized that the invasion’s success was no longer in his hands. Its outcome depended on 160,000 allied troops, thousands of commanders, and hundreds of lieutenants. Eisenhower had done everything in his power to coordinate their efforts and create conditions conducive to the mission’s success. After issuing his orders, all he could do was let those conditions come to fruition on their own terms. After all his efforts, he could not control the outcomes—he let go of the outcomes.

An Authentic Leader in Action: Eisenhower’s Character, Responsibility, & Accountability

That evening, on his way to visit American and British paratroopers (pictured above) who were headed into battle that night, Eisenhower told his driver, “I hope to God I’m right.”

Just before he went to bed at night, Eisenhower scribbled a note and tucked it into his wallet. He thought he would use this letter if the invasion went wrong. (Eisenhower mistakenly dated the note July 5 instead of June 5.)

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Dwight Eisenhower's note to use if the Normandy Invasion went wrong, 5-June-1945

Observe that Eisenhower crossed out “This particular operation” and wrote “My decision to attack.” This demonstrates Eisenhower’s assertive and responsible leadership in action. He wrote, “any blame or fault … is mine alone” and underscored the phrase “mine alone.” He did not use passive language or try to camouflage failure with phrases like, “as fate would have had it,” “unaccommodating weather,” “forecast not met,” “mistakes were made,” or “we tried really hard, but ….”

Eisenhower was an authentic leader in action—a leader who was ready and willing to accept unshrinking responsibility for his actions and their results.

Eisenhower won his wager with the weather. The invasion of Normandy was successful and proved to be a turning point in World War II. Eisenhower never used the note he had prepared on the eve of the attack. It is now on display at Dwight D. Eisenhower Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.

Authentic Leaders Demonstrate Accountability

As exemplified by Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership as the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, authentic leaders recognize the accountability that comes with their roles. They accept absolute responsibility for the expected outcomes—both good and bad—no matter what the situation is. They don’t blame unfavorable circumstances, the external environment, employees, superiors, customers, or anybody else.

This Manager’s Change Initiatives Lacked Ethos, Pathos, Logos: Case Study on Aristotle’s Persuasion Framework

Persuasive Manager

In my previous article, I reviewed Aristotle’s framework for persuasion and argumentation: to win over others to a particular point of view, it’s necessary to appeal through ethos (credibility,) pathos (emotion,) and logos (reason.) In this article, I give a case study of organizational initiative that lacked ethos, pathos, and logos.

Consider the case of a young mid-level manager I coached last year. Helen (name changed for anonymity) recently joined the finance department of a capital-goods company. Two months into her job, she was bothered by her lack of initial success in bringing about change at her workplace.

Helen was smart, driven, and had a great professional track record. During her interviews, she had impressed her supervisors by her hard work, drive, and creative ideas. They recruited her to implement rigorous audit processes.

Just a few weeks after joining, Helen drew from her previous experience and generated many new and creative ideas to overhaul the financial audit processes. Her supervisors had given her all the responsibility and authority to bring about the necessary changes. However, she quickly encountered a problem: her peers and team members would not buy into her ideas.

In meetings where Helen spoke of her vision for change, her peers and team members would politely pay lip service to her ideas, but when it came to actually implementing her suggestions, nothing seemed to happen. Helen received a 360-degree feedback exercise about how her peers and team members perceived her and her ideas.

How to be More Persuasive

Helen was startled by the feedback she received. In response, she decided to improve her approach to selling her ideas by working on all three dimensions of Aristotle’s persuasion framework.

  • Ethos: Helen lacked ethos among her peers and her team members. She possessed ethos in the eyes of her superiors who’d recruited her and granted her authority to bring about the necessary change, but not with her peers and team members. She realized that she needed to prove herself and her ideas’ credibility.
  • Pathos: Helen had failed to elicit pathos and never took the time and effort to involve her peers and team members in the decision-making and convince them of the need for change.
  • Logos: Helen assumed that the problems she had faced at her previous employer were the same problems her new employer faced. Without learning about the corporate culture and the existing audit processes by interviewing her peers and team members, Helen had made all her recommendations for change based on things she had seen work in other settings. Her suggestions found no resonance for her new colleagues—to them she seemed to be trying to fix problems that did not exist.

Idea for Impact: To persuade others to your point of view, you must understand what truly moves your audience and then appeal through all the elements of Aristotle’s ethos-pathos-logos framework.

Successful People Earn Trust Using These Ten Cs

Successful People Earn Trust Using These Ten Cs

One of the most important aspects of being effective at work—as professionals, managers, or leaders—is earning and upholding others’ trust through our actions, not through our words. We earn trust by making and honoring commitments. We earn trust slowly but can lose it in an instant.

Here are ten elements that can help you earn your constituencies’ trust:

  1. Competency. Develop your expertise in everything that is fundamentally important to your role, team, organization, company, or industry. Be knowledgeable and resourceful.
  2. Cause. Develop, articulate, and agree on a vision of meaning, purpose, fulfillment, and empowerment. Define a path and guide your organization’s way forward.
  3. Challenge. Stretch yourself. Push the boundaries to help people accomplish more. Channel people’s collective strengths and capabilities. Push the limits of their thoughts and actions. Expect excellence.
  4. Connectedness. Foster an environment of collaborative commitment. Build spirited teams. Value and celebrate diversity. Provide inclusion. Build team cohesion.
  5. Concern. Get to know the people you work with. Be approachable. Create a workplace where people feel genuinely cared. Grow, train, and retain people. Recognize their individuality and encourage them to strive to do their best.
  6. Credibility. Act with integrity. Do what you commit to. Do the right things for the right reasons.
  7. Consistency. Be steady in your purpose. Be open and honest. Set clear standards. Communicate and act consistently so others don’t need to guess what your motivations or intentions are. Communicate and lead from the front. Be visible. Be transparent and forthright, especially during tough times.
  8. Continuity. Respect and honor the past. Be willing to learn from past failures and successes.
  9. Commitment. Fully dedicate your resources to a task, especially when times are tough. Once you’ve undertaken to do something, invest the necessary effort and actions to make it happen.
  10. Celebration. Recognize employees for all levels of achievement—for big projects, service milestones, and day-to-day accomplishments. Celebration helps fuel human accomplishment.