When does feeling moral actually make you a better person? Conceptual abstraction moderates whether past moral deeds motivate consistency or compensatory behavior

Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2012 Jul;38(7):907-19. doi: 10.1177/0146167212442394. Epub 2012 Apr 6.


According to the moral licensing literature, moral self-perceptions induce compensatory behavior: People who feel moral act less prosocially than those who feel immoral. Conversely, work on moral identity indicates that moral self-perceptions motivate behavioral consistency: People who feel moral act more prosocially than those who feel less so. In three studies, the authors reconcile these propositions by demonstrating the moderating role of conceptual abstraction. In Study 1, participants who recalled performing recent (concrete) moral or immoral behavior demonstrated compensatory behavior, whereas participants who considered temporally distant (abstract) moral behavior demonstrated behavioral consistency. Study 2 confirmed that this effect was unique to moral self-perceptions. Study 3 manipulated whether participants recalled moral or immoral actions concretely or abstractly, and replicated the moderation pattern with willingness to donate real money to charity. Together, these findings suggest that concrete moral self-perceptions activate self-regulatory behavior, and abstract moral self-perceptions activate identity concerns.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Male
  • Mental Recall
  • Middle Aged
  • Morals*
  • Motivation*
  • Self Concept*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Control, Informal
  • Surveys and Questionnaires