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Way In

How doing good makes you bad

WIprius.jpg

One good turn, we have been told, deserves another, and it's hard to argue with that. But psychological research suggests that we tend to work on the principle that doing a good turn gives us permission for a bad one.

This is a finding of the Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong. They got 156 students to buy products online, and in half the cases the options were weighted towards green products. They then tested their generosity. Each student had to divide a gift of money between themself and another person, unseen, and those who had bought green products were significantly more selfish in the way they did it.

Worse was to follow. Students sat a computer test which paid them money for certain results, but an apparent fault in the programme allowed them to get more money than they were supposed to. Again, the green shoppers proved more dishonest.

The researchers' conclusion - in line with other recent studies - is that our consciences practice a kind of ethical offsetting. And it applies beyond green issues, of course.

If we behave in a way that seems especially good, the theory goes, we award ourselves moral credits that we can cash in by doing something selfish. And vice versa. We carry round a kind of ledger in our heads for ethical double-entry bookkeeping.

It's all rather reminiscent of the ad for that most virtuous of cars the Prius, which showed people disposing of dead bodies and cheating on their partners, with the slogan, 'At least he/she drives a Prius'.

Christian moralists will welcome the insight into the way our consciences actually work, while deploring the mindset it reveals. As Jesus said, 'You also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty"'.

Then again, the church has little room for congratulations or complacency, littered as it is with the consciences of leaders, and indeed followers, who felt that pouring their lives out in duty to God gave them licence to rob, deceive or violate human beings.

Read the report at http://www.rotman.utoronto.ca/newthinking/greenproducts.pdf