By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; G01
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 Benoît 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."
Local home-appliance and building contractors who specialize in green products see examples of such indulgence almost every day. They have begun to warn customers that installing green products in their homes does not give them license to overconsume: Don't run the plasma TV all night just because you put solar panels on your roof; don't take endless showers because your water is heated off the grid; don't do more loads of laundry because your machine is energy-efficient.
There is ample reason for such warnings.
Lucas Davis, an energy economist at the University of California, Berkeley, has published a study showing that after getting high-efficiency washers, consumers increased clothes washing by nearly 6 percent. Other studies show that people leave energy-efficient lights on longer. A recent study by the Shelton Group, which advocates for sustainable consumer choices, showed that of 500 people who had greened their homes, a third saw no reduction in bills.
"Subconsciously, I think this is just part of human nature," said Jason Holstine, owner of Amicus Green Building Center in the Kensington. "It's like, 'If I just do a little, I'm off the hook and my conscious is clear. Give me a pat on the back, and thank you very much.' Then it goes too far."
"They think, 'I'm being a good person, I can do more of this stuff and still come out ahead,' " said Frank Zeman, director of the Center for Metropolitan Sustainability at New York Institute of Technology. "Although the problem is that they will never come out ahead. This goes to the heart of the sustainability challenge."
But for luxury retailers, this behavior is often a boon. Uzma Khan, a marketing professor at Stanford who studies the psychology of buying, once asked study participants to choose between buying a vacuum cleaner or designer jeans. Participants who were asked to imagine having committed a virtuous act before shopping were significantly more likely to choose jeans than those not thinking of themselves as virtuous.
"That's the amazing thing here: People don't even have to do good for this effect to happen," Khan said. "Even if they plan to do something good, it will give them a boost in their self-image. Any type of situation where you have guilt involved, you will see this, and so this happens in luxury goods."
And neither the customer nor the retailer could know it's happening.
Moral licensing behavior extends, in a different way, into dieting. Khan showed in a study last year that people ate more chocolate while drinking Diet Coke than while drinking more, sugary fare. Dietitians in the region report all sorts of odd justifications from clients eating bad food while trying to lose weight. Rovenia Brock, a District dietitian, says she has clients keep a food and activity diary because it is the only way for them to see that ordering a diet soda at McDonald's is slowing their progress.
Without the diary, "it's helter-skelter and their behavior will be all over the place," Brock said. "It's like spaghetti on the wall." When they write down their behavior, the inequitable trade-offs come into full view -- if they don't lie. Many clients, uncomfortable with seeing the truth revealed in their diary, simply leave it out, she said.
Brock said she sympathizes with clients who engage in moral licensing. It turns out that she's not so different from them. All her diet counseling apparently makes it easier for her to decide to gulp down a pint of Haagen-Dazs banana split ice cream.
"I feel like I deserve to have it," she said. "I know I'm gonna work out, work it off, blah, blah, blah. It starts out with a cup, and then later on I can hear it calling me from the freezer. One scoop turns into another. Like my clients, if I pick up the pint and put in a spoon, I'm done. That's my goose cooked, royally."