"After doing a good deed, I can afford a socially undesirable deed."
Sometimes individuals use the good deeds they have done in the past to justify and legitimize their current harmful behaviors [1, 2, 3]. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is the moral self-licensing bias.
We can talk about bias because, in reality, the consequences of our actions do not counterbalance each other, that is, committing a "good" action has no effect on the fact that the bad action remains bad. Thus, this phenomenon leads us to do things that we would not usually do for fear of appearing immoral . This bias has both a social dimension and an individual dimension. Society is involved in setting the standards that determine whether our actions are desirable or undesirable, and these standards are among the elements that we then use as a scale for establishing our personal worth. The bias therefore arises from a desire to appear as a good person, both to oneself [3, 5] and in the eyes of others , even when our actions seem to prove the contrary.
For the past year, to obtain a small additional income, you have devoted one day a week to helping a person with a disability to do their shopping and go to their medical appointments. When completing your tax return form, you take the liberty of omitting to declare this additional income . You tell yourself that anyway, this income was earned by doing a good deed and that you have done your part for society in the past year. In this situation, you are under the impression that the good deeds accomplished release you from your obligation to contribute to society by paying your fair share of taxes.
Actions that are beneficial to society often involve costs for those who do them, in the form of time, money and/or energy. On the other hand, not doing them can generate guilt  and tension in individuals, who wish to do well, but who are not always ready to assume the associated costs . The moral compensation bias therefore plays the role of an internal balance that allows us to indulge in less costly behaviors when our reservoir of good deeds seems sufficiently full .
Two models are proposed to explain this process. The “moral credit” model refers to an account credited by our socially desirable actions and debited when we behave in socially undesirable ways [1,4,5]. Thus, when we are aware that the action we are about to take is not desirable, we can consider that we have performed enough good deeds to allow ourselves a bad deed without it making us appear to be a bad person.
In the other model, that of moral reference, it is our perception of the harmful action that is changed. For example, after purchasing energy-saving light bulbs, leaving them on for a long time is no longer considered a harmful behavior, because their environmental impact is considered negligible. According to this explanation, moral compensation bias acts more like a lens that changes our standards of what is socially acceptable [1, 4, 5].
What makes this bias particularly important is its counter-productive impact on public policies. For example, after launching a campaign encouraging people to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, researchers found that the households that achieved the best energy performance were also those that were the most likely to allow themselves "small excesses" by leaving the lights on longer or increasing the temperature of the heater [4, 5], thus largely neutralizing the effects of the program.
Similar effects have been observed in programs promoting the hiring of people from minorities and the reduction of habits of over-consumption . Thus, after demonstrating their non-racist stance (a good deed) in a simulated scenario, corporate executives tended to hire fewer Black candidates (a bad deed) in real, non-simulated scenarios . Similarly, consumers were more likely to spend more on luxury goods after taking part in charity drives . It therefore becomes difficult to generate positive changes at the population level, since the positive actions generate a relaxation of moral values in other spheres.
Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias
Change our good actions into habits, because once a routine is established, the decision-making process leading to action is less demanding and less influenced by external factors, such as our past or future behaviour .
Giving ourselves extra time before taking an action or making a decision allows us to reflect on the motivations behind it, and to orient it more according to our values than the state of our moral credit account.
Showing humility by putting into perspective the scope of the actions we take, and the need to maintain them over a long period in order to have an impact, may help us to come to the conclusion that we have never really done too many good deeds.
How is this bias measured?
A pool of participants is divided into two groups. The first group is invited to take part in an activity perceived positively: picking up litter in the streets (group of good deeds). On the contrary, the second group of participants is invited to participate in an activity perceived negatively by society, such as the purchase of luxury goods (bad action group) .
Thereafter, a second activity is offered to all participants. This generally consists in a situation where the good action is optional, in order to examine whether the participant chooses to take part in it or not. For example, before leaving, interested people are asked to leave their contact information so that they can be contacted for other volunteer activities. Individuals thus have the option of avoiding the morally desirable action, by not leaving their contact details for further volunteering. When this occurs more among individuals in the “good deed” group than among participants in the other group, it can be concluded that they have been influenced by the moral self-licensing bias .
This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:
This bias has social or individual repercussions:
This bias is empirically demonstrated:
 Merritt, Anna C., Daniel A. Effron, & Benoît Monin (2010). Moral self-licensing: when being good frees us to be bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4(5): 344–357.
 Blanken, Irene, Niels van de Ven, & Marcel Zeelenberg (2015). A meta-analytic review of moral licensing. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41(4), 540‑558.
 Sachdeva, Sonya, Rumen Iliev, & Douglas L. Medin (2009). Sinning saints and saintly sinners: The paradox of moral self-regulation. Psychological Science 20(4): 523‑28.
 Clot, Sophie, Gilles Grolleau, Lisette Ibanez, & Peguy Ndodjang (2014). L’effet de compensation morale ou comment les « bonnes actions » peuvent aboutir à une situation indésirable. Revue économique 65(3): 557‑72.
 Effron, Daniel A., & Paul Conway (2015). When virtue leads to villainy: Advances in research on moral self-licensing. Current Opinion in Psychology 6, 32‑35.
Individual level, Interpersonal level, Need for self-esteem, Need for cognitive consonance
Self-licensing, moral licensing, licensing effect, moral credential effect (synonyms)
Sharlie Desmanches, Bachelor’s student in psychology, Université du Québec à Montréal.
Translated from French to English by Susan D. Renaud.
How to cite this entry
Desmanches, S. (2022). Moral self-licensing, trans S. D. Renaud. In G. Béghin, E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 5. Online: www.shortcogs.com