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[INTRO ♪].

Most days, the world isn’t a clear-cut, black-and-white kind of place. And that means that, sometimes, people you think are good do bad things.

In fact, sometimes good people do bad things because they normally do good things. This is what’s known as moral licensing, also called self-licensing or moral self-licensing. And while it sounds like it might not make a lot of sense, you might be more familiar with it than you would like to think.

Moral licensing is basically what happens every time you decide that you deserve something because you have been good. When an action is morally ambiguous, your history of doing good things can make you feel like you can cut yourself some slack and grant yourself an exception. Thankfully, those bad things aren’t usually that bad.

Like, maybe you got a ginormous waffle cone after your spin class or you bought those sweet new kicks that you can’t really afford because you’ve done such a good job saving this month. Look, you do you! We don’t judge.

Treat yo self! But moral licensing can undermine our ability to meet our goals. And it also has an even more sinister side: It can cause people to give themselves permission to cheat or to be more prejudiced.

So why do we do it, and what can we do, when necessary, to put a stop to it? Researchers have found that moral licensing shows up in a whole bunch of different situations. One 2017 study found that employees who participated in a corporate social responsibility program were more likely to shirk their duties for their actual job, because they felt like they were doing good.

Similarly, participants who were part of a 2013 water conservation program did save water… but ended up using more electricity. Some of the examples, though, were a lot more… concerning. For example, in one study, people who had a chance to disagree with some really sexist statements tended to favor a male candidate for a job over a female one later on.

And another paper with around 100 participants showed that those who endorsed Barack Obama were more likely to later make pro-white judgments. It’s worth pointing out that some meta-analyses have found that the strength of the evidence for moral licensing is due in part to a publication bias. Interesting findings, after all, are more likely to get published than ones showing no effect.

But even taking that into account, moral licensing still appears to be A Thing. And it turns out you don’t even have to do the good stuff to cut yourself slack later on. Like, one study found that participants who had imagined agreeing to help another student donated less money in a follow-up task than those who hadn’t imagined doing anything nice.

Writing about yourself in generally positive terms, rather than recalling some specific incident of good behavior, also seems to do the trick. And then there’s moral cleansing, which is sort of the opposite of moral licensing. When we’re starting to feel like we don’t come across as particularly moral, we’ll do something to make ourselves feel or seem better.

Like, in one study, participants were more likely to literally sanitize their hands after copying out a story about people doing some immoral stuff. But all these different examples beg the question of how this mental arithmetic actually happens. How do we decide when we can give ourselves some moral wiggle room?

So far, there are two models for how it might work: the moral credits model and the moral credentials model. In the moral credits model, good and bad behaviors are like credits and debits on a bank account. If you do something good, then you have moral credit to spend on being naughty.

In the moral credentials model, past behavior shapes your sense of who you are. So in an ambiguous situation, where something might be bad but it could kind of go either way, you’re more likely to decide that the bad thing really isn’t that bad after all. Because you’re for sure not the kind of person who does bad things.

Psychologists generally like these two models, but they can’t say yet which of them is better at explaining moral licensing. Part of the problem is that it might ultimately depend on other factors. For instance, one 2013 study found that participants licensed certain immoral behaviors differently depending on the socioeconomic status of the person they were judging, which is a whole different can of worms.

But! There are some things we can say about moral licensing. Many psychologists believe that it’s more likely to happen when the badness of the thing being licensed is more ambiguous.

And it’s also not just about making others think we’re good people. It’s also about how we think of ourselves. For instance, we’ll let ourselves get away with bad behavior in front of an audience even if that audience doesn’t know we’re usually upstanding citizens.

We also have some pretty good ideas about how to put the brakes on moral licensing. For the kind that interferes with you achieving your goals, reframing the way you think about those goals can help. Psychologists suggest thinking of the first steps toward a goal as a commitment you’re making, not just some pretty good progress so far.

Because good progress can allow us to let ourselves slack off. And for everything else? Just knowing that it’s a bias can help us counter it.

It lets us pay more attention to when we let things slide and why. And that can help us make sure that we’re doing the stuff we’re doing for reasons that we’re okay with. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

If you would like to learn more about bias and the tendencies that shape people, you might want to watch our episode on implicit bias, and whether or not everybody is a little bit racist. Buckle up. [OUTRO ♪].