Sinning saints and saintly sinners: the paradox of moral self-regulation

Psychol Sci. 2009 Apr;20(4):523-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02326.x. Epub 2009 Mar 20.

Abstract

The question of why people are motivated to act altruistically has been an important one for centuries, and across various disciplines. Drawing on previous research on moral regulation, we propose a framework suggesting that moral (or immoral) behavior can result from an internal balancing of moral self-worth and the cost inherent in altruistic behavior. In Experiment 1, participants were asked to write a self-relevant story containing words referring to either positive or negative traits. Participants who wrote a story referring to the positive traits donated one fifth as much as those who wrote a story referring to the negative traits. In Experiment 2, we showed that this effect was due specifically to a change in the self-concept. In Experiment 3, we replicated these findings and extended them to cooperative behavior in environmental decision making. We suggest that affirming a moral identity leads people to feel licensed to act immorally. However, when moral identity is threatened, moral behavior is a means to regain some lost self-worth.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Social Control, Informal*