Moral Credentialing and the Rationalization of Misconduct

Ethics Behav. 2011 Jan;21(1):1-12. doi: 10.1080/10508422.2011.537566.


Recent studies lead to the paradoxical conclusion that the act of affirming one's egalitarian or pro-social values and virtues might subsequently facilitate prejudiced or self-serving behavior, an effect previously referred to as "moral credentialing." The present study extends this paradox to the domain of academic misconduct and investigates the hypothesis that such an effect might be limited by the extent to which misbehavior is rationalizable. Using a paradigm designed to investigate deliberative and rationalized forms of cheating (von Hippel, Lakin, & Shakarchi, 2005), we found that when participants had credentialed themselves (versus a non-close acquaintance) via a set of hypothetical moral dilemmas, they were more likely to cheat on a subsequent math task, but only if cheating was highly rationalizable. When cheating was difficult to rationalize, moral credentialing had almost no impact on cheating.