Thursday, September 15, 2011

The paradoxical effects of doing good

As a kid, I can remember fighting with my brother over who got the larger piece of cake.  “Relax,” my dad would say, “it will even out in the long run.”  Of course, as a kid, I wanted it to even out in the short run too.  If my brother got the larger piece of cake, then it would only be fair if I got to ride in the front seat of the car.
It is not so clear that things are different for adults either.
As adults, we may not even need to make things even out across people.  For example, if you go to the gym in the afternoon, then you feel as though you can eat a little extra for dinner.  The virtue of exercise can immediately support the vice of an extra helping.
This issue was examined in experiments reported in a paper by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong in a paper in the April, 2010 issue of Psychological Science.  They looked at the effects of buying environmentally-friendly “green” products on behavior. 
In these studies, participants saw a website that described 12 products that were for sale.  For one group, most of the products were environmentally friendly (such as rechargeable batteries and organic yogurt).  For the other group, most of the products were not environmentally friendly (such as regular light bulbs, or Kraft macaroni and cheese).   Some of the people in these studies just looked at the websites.  Others were asked to select a basket of products they wanted to purchase.  
The authors reasoned that people who just looked at products would be more likely to feel virtuous after seeing a store filled with “green” products than after seeing a store filled with conventional products.  However, if people were asked to select a group of products to purchase, then they expected a different pattern of results.  Buying “green” products should make people feel like they had done their good deed for the day, and so they could balance out that good deed with a less good deed.
The authors addressed this question in two ways.
In one study, after either seeing the stores or picking a basket of products for purchase, participants played a dictator game.  In the dictator game, participants got $6 and were told to split it with a partner.    They could keep whatever they chose not to give to the partner.  In this game, participants who saw a store with many green products gave more to their partner than those who saw a store with conventional products.  However, those who picked a basket from the store with green products actually gave their partner less money than those who picked a basket from the store with conventional products. 
A second study made a similar observation using an experiment in which people had the opportunity to cheat.  In this study, participants had the chance to play a game in which they could cheat to get more points.  In addition, at the end of the game, participants were asked to pay themselves in accordance with the number of correct answers they got in the game.  Participants who saw green products cheated less than those who saw conventional products.  In contrast, participants who bought green products actually cheated more than those who saw conventional products.
Taking these results together, it seems that when you just see virtuous products, it activates the concept of being virtuous.  This active concept makes you act more virtuously in the future..  Actually performing a virtuous act, though, makes you feel as though your mental account of virtue is turning a profit.   This surplus of virtue can be spent immediately on a vice.
What we all need to remember, though, is that things do not need to even out in the short run.  Every virtuous act does not need to be followed by a vice just to keep your mental account of virtue in balance.