Moral Equilibrium

Moral Equilibrium

What is Moral Equilibrium?

You must have observed that some people who consider themselves morally good also tend to display the types of acts that do not fit with the ethical standards. Why do they do so? Why do they show unethical behaviour even when they believe in moral ethics? This behaviour can be explained through a psychological phenomenon called Moral Equilibrium. Robert Prentice, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin describes moral equilibrium as ‘a behavioural accounting ledger.’ In other words, it means that most people maintain a mental scorecard; when they do something good, they add some points to the positive column of the mental scorecard, and when they do something bad they add points to the negative column of the mental scorecard. The points on both the positive and the negative columns keep on changing depending on the different decisions that the person makes on the daily basis. It is the tendency of the human brain to maintain equilibrium between the positive and the negative columns of the mental scorecard which influences the person to show the positive or the negative behaviour. This balancing of the points usually happens unconsciously, and it impacts the ability of the person to follow the ethical code of conduct always. In this article, we’ll understand the concept of moral equilibrium and its components.

Understanding Moral Equilibrium

Understanding Moral Equilibrium

The phenomenon of moral equilibrium is based on the notion that most people require to think of themselves as good people as it makes them feel positive. We tend to maintain a mental scorecard where we compare our perception of ourselves as a good person with what we really do. Let us understand this with the two components of the moral equilibrium, i.e., moral licensing and moral compensation.

Components of Moral Equilibrium

1. Moral Compensation

When we do anything unethical or something that is against ethical standards, we tend to feel a deficit on the positive side of the mental scoreboard. Due to this, we feel the need to do something positive that lowers our guilt of committing unethical tasks and compensates for the deficit on the mental scoreboard. This is known as moral compensation. In other words, moral compensation refers to the tendency of the people to feel that they can compensate for the deficit on the positive side of the mental scoreboard by doing some good deeds.

Moral Compensation

2. Moral Licensing

When we do something ethical or honourable, we tend to feel good about ourselves. Due to these positive or honourable feelings about ourselves, we tend to feel surplus on the good side of the mental scoreboard. Our perception of the surplus on the positive side allows us to do something that may not be aligned with the ethical standards. This is known as moral licensing. In other words, moral licensing means that people tend to feel that they have the license to do something that does not meet the ethical standards because they have a surplus of the good deeds on the mental scoreboard. The scary factor of moral licensing is that it can make ethical people show unethical behaviour. A person who believes in doing good deeds such as charity or volunteering may think that they are amazing and ethical people, and this may allow them to do something unethical. For example, an accountant who believes in moral ethicality and always writes accurate entries on the sheet may think that it is okay to fill the wrong entries for one day for self-benefits under the influence of moral licensing.

Moral Licensing

Moral equilibrium can also be described as the tendency of the person to maintain the balance in their perceived mental scoreboard through moral compensation and moral licensing.

Moral Equilibrium Study

In a study, the subjects were divided into two groups. The first group was told to write about the good things that they did in the past while the second group was told to write about the bad things that they did in the past. After they finished writing, they were told to do some good deeds such as volunteering or donating to charity. The findings of this experiment revealed that the first group volunteered and donated more than the second group. This phenomenon can be explained through moral compensation. The first group wrote about the bad things for which they were guilty, these bad deeds were fresh in their brain, which is why they engaged in the good deed or we can say moral compensation, to reduce the feeling of bad deeds and to maintain the equilibrium in the mental scorecards. On the other hand, the second group wrote about good deeds, which is why they did not feel the need for moral compensation.

Case Study on Moral Equilibrium

Buying Organic Products

According to the data of the Organic Trade Association, the demand for organic food is increasing by double-digit with every passing year since 1990. Various green consumer products such as electric cars, and organic food items have acquired a large section of the consumer market. Generally, the consumers of green products are seen as more ethical, kind, and altruistic than the people who do not buy organic products. But studies reveal something different. The psychologist Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong conducted various experiments to analyse the behaviour of the people who buy green products and the ones who buy conventional products. The findings of this study revealed that people who buy the green products were more likely to cheat when they could have monetary benefits, and they tend to steal the money when there were fewer or zero chances of being caught, than the people who buy the conventional products. Also, the people who buy green products were less likely to give donations or money to strangers.

Purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviour” – Mazar and Zhong (2010)

Psychologist Nina Mazar stated in an interview that,

The message of this research is that actions which produce a sense of self-content and moral glow can sometimes backfire”

Case Study on Moral Equilibrium

This similar behaviour of the consumers is observed in some other studies too. In a study conducted at a grocery store in California, scanned data and the shopper’s receipt were tracked. It was found that the customers who carried the eco-friendly grocery bags with them were more likely to shop the eco-friendly products such as organic food, but they were also more likely to shop the indulgent goods such as cookies, ice cream, candies, etc. This shows that the consumers indulge in the moral licensing (buying indulgent products) because they bought the organic products. The researchers studied this consumer behaviour by conducting more studies and found that the effect of moral licensing was only observed when it was the customer’s decision to buy eco-friendly bags for the shopping. When the shopping store made it mandatory for the customers to come along with the eco-friendly shopping bags, the more licensing effect was not observed and the customers did not buy the indulgent goods. This shows the moral licensing effect was only observed when the consumers thought they have a surplus on the positive side of the mental scoreboard because of using green products.

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Discussion Questions

This case study can be discussed through the following questions.

  • What other products apart from the green products can result in the moral licensing effect among people. Do you remember any incident when your purchase choice has influenced you to indulge in moral licensing?
  • Do all the green product consumers indulge in the moral licensing effect or are there any other factors such as demographics, statistics, or environment that may impact the moral licensing effect among green consumers. If yes/no, Why?
  • Before conducting this study, Mazar and Zhong thought that the customers who buy green products are more ethical or altruistic, but the study revealed the opposite behaviour. What is your opinion regarding that?
  • What steps should be taken to reduce the moral licensing effect among the customers who buy green products?
  • If you are a green product seller and are aware of the moral licensing, would you use that effect for marketing? Why or Why not?

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