You’re a bastard

by on April 23, 2009 at 9:50 am in Science | Permalink

According to one recent study, the portfolio effect dominates:

You might expect that being prompted (primed) to think of yourself as a good person would make you more altruistic or moral – but, in fact, the exact opposite appears to be
the case. Primed to think about what a good person you are, your most
likely reaction is to think you’ve paid your morality dues and go on
about your business.

The underlying model is this:

According to a new study in Psychological Science,
humans engage in a process called “moral self-regulation.” Basically,
we’re constantly calculating the trade-off between being able to see
ourselves as good people and the cost of engaging in all that
non-advantageous goodness.

1 athelas April 23, 2009 at 10:00 am

Makes sense from a social signaling POV. If you’re perceived as good, it means you’ve done enough to reap the social benefits.

2 . April 23, 2009 at 10:05 am
3 TGGP April 23, 2009 at 10:22 am

So perhaps schools should encourage lower self-esteem.

4 Miles K April 23, 2009 at 10:41 am

Whenever I try and see myself in someone else’ shoes I always picture them walking over and handing me a dollar.

5 Not a liberal April 23, 2009 at 11:11 am

This explains a lot about liberals.

6 Butter April 23, 2009 at 11:49 am

I think that this is spot on. I’ve always thought that people have an
implicit “morality budget constraint.” You can think of going to Church
or volunteering as morality income, and going out and having too much to
drink morality consumption.

7 anonymous April 23, 2009 at 12:05 pm

This would explain weekly church attendance. It’s like those TV commercials where a kid splashes around in the mud, his smiling mother doesn’t mind a bit and uses the featured detergent to get clothes sparkling clean, and then he goes out and gets dirty all over again.

8 Michael Makowsky April 23, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Best post title yet.

9 yarrrr April 23, 2009 at 6:33 pm

I know religious people(of which I’m one) in the US are said to give a little more to charity, but I’ve also heard complained from waitresses about how the church people are such poor tippers… there’s some self-selection bias with regard to who would be waitressing on a Sunday, but I wish someone would do a study on that…

Of course there is this from the economist…

Cleanliness is next to godlessness: Soaping away your outer dirt may lead to inner evil

10 alex April 23, 2009 at 8:43 pm

I can definetly see an equilibrium between “me being entitled” and “what should I do to get ahead”…

11 judy April 23, 2009 at 10:29 pm

Because of all their self-sacrifice, the good end up poor and so they can’t donate as much.

12 Cyrus April 23, 2009 at 11:21 pm

The comments here may demonstrate that not only are positive beliefs about one’s morality a sought-after substitute for moral behavior, but so are negative beliefs about others’ morality.

13 Andrew April 24, 2009 at 7:00 am


Perhaps we need a better moral accounting system. Maybe the people who used good words about themselves already gave at the office, so they really were good, and the people who used bad words gave more to seek atonement for really being bad. And, if you are like me, with a Randian streak, it’s hard to distinguish doing a good job at your job from charity sometimes. But, once the paychecks start rolling in, will I still feel so righteous? The most annoying is when Warren Buffett tries to assuage his guilt by apparently withholding reasonable rewards from his kids and lobbying Congress to limit my upside.

14 IPC Laptop Battery May 18, 2009 at 9:32 am

Whenever I try and see myself in someone else’ shoes I always picture them walking over and handing me a dollar.

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