Why going green won't make you better or save you money

(Marc Rosenthal For The Washington Post)
By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Like most Whole Foods shoppers, David Bain thinks he is a decent citizen of Earth. His family buys mostly organic food. They recycle. He recently fortified his green credentials by removing a leaking oil tank in his yard.

But here's a head scratcher: Though the Bains live in Arlington within walking distance of Whole Foods, they often drive there in an SUV that gets just 19 miles per gallon. He has noticed that his SUV is not alone in the lot.

Does that make Bain a hypocrite? He paused before responding: "I could see how people would come to that conclusion, but I don't have the illusion that people's decision-making is always logical."

We drink Diet Coke -- with Quarter Pounders and fries at McDonald's. We go to the gym -- and ride the elevator to the second floor. We install tankless water heaters -- then take longer showers. We drive SUVs to see Al Gore's speeches on global warming.

These behavioral riddles beg explanation, and social psychologists are offering one in new studies. The academic name for such quizzical behavior is moral licensing. It seems that we have a good/bad balance sheet in our heads that we're probably not even aware of. For many people, doing good makes it easier -- and often more likely -- to do bad. It works in reverse, too: Do bad, then do good.

"We have these internal negotiations going in our heads all day, even if we don't know it," said BenoƮt Monin, a social psychologist who studies moral licensing at Stanford University. "People's past behavior literally gives them license to do that next thing, which might not be good."

The implications of moral licensing are vast, stretching beyond consumer decisions and into politics and environmental policy. Monin published a study showing that voters given an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama for president were more likely to later favor white people for job openings. Social psychologists point to government standards for fuel efficiency as another example of moral licensing at work: Automakers can sell a certain number of gas guzzlers as long as their overall fleet achieves a specified miles-per-gallon rating.

"There are so many contradictions in today's world, especially when it comes to green issues," said Keith Ware, who has watched with raised eyebrows as Hummers pull up to his environmentally sensitive appliance store, Eco-Green Living, near the nuclear-free zone of Takoma Park.

From a theoretical perspective, the research has shown that "it's like we can withdraw from our moral bank accounts," Monin said. "It's a lens through which you see the rest of your behavior. But it may not even be conscious."

This seemingly contradictory behavior is all around us, but it is probably most apparent, and easy to lampoon, in the greening of America.

University of Toronto behavioral marketing professor Nina Mazar showed in a recent study that people who bought green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products. One of Mazar's experiments invited participants to shop either at online stores that carry mainly green products or mainly conventional products. Then they played a game that allowed them to cheat to make more money. The shoppers from the green store were more dishonest than those at the conventional store, which brought them higher earnings in the game.

"People do not make decisions in a vacuum; their decisions are embedded in a history of behaviors," Mazar wrote, with co-author Chen-Bo Zhong. "Purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company