Joel Brockner: Are We More or Less Likely to Continue Behaving Morally?

by Joel Brockner

This post appears concurrently on Psychology Today.

Sometimes when we do something it causes us to continue in the same vein, or show a more extreme version of the behavior. The method of social influence known as “the foot-in-the-door” technique is based on this tendency. For instance, salespeople usually won’t ask you to make a big purchase, such as a yearlong subscription, right off the bat. Instead, they will first ask you to take a small step, such as to accept an introductory offer that will only last for a little while. Then, at a later date they will ask you to make the big purchase. Research shows that people are more likely to go along with a big request if they previously agreed to a small related request. A now-classic study suggested that people were willing to put a large, ugly sign in front of their homes saying, “Drive Carefully,” if, a few days before they simply signed their name to a petition supporting safe driving.

Other times, however, when people do something it makes them less likely to continue to behave that way. For example, if people made a charitable contribution to the United Way at work, they may feel less compelled to do so if the United Way came knocking on their door at home. In fact, if solicited at home they would probably say something to the effect of, “I gave at the office.” Research by Benoit Monin and Dale Miller on moral licensing shows a similar tendency. Once people do a good deed it makes them less likely to continue, at least for a while.

The notion of moral licensing assumes that most of us want to see ourselves as open-minded or generous. Engaging in behavior that is open-minded or generous allows us to see ourselves in these desirable ways, which ironically may free us up to behave close-mindedly or selfishly. Regarding open-mindedness, consider the evolution that has transpired in the management literature on the meaning of diversity. Originally, diversity referred to legally protected categories set forth in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was designed to prevent employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Over time, the definition of diversity has broadened, such that employers increasingly use non-legal dimensions – e.g., personality traits, culture, and communication style – as indicators of diversity. An example of a broad definition of diversity may be found on the website of Dow AgroSciences: “Diversity … extends well beyond descriptors such as race, gender, age or ethnicity; we are intentional about including aspects of diversity that address our differences in culture, background, experiences, perspectives, personal and work style.” Modupe Akinola and her colleagues recently discovered that law firms that adopted broader definitions of diversity had fewer women and minorities in their employee base. Thus, behaving open-mindedly (adopting a broad definition of diversity) was associated with law firms acting close-mindedly towards women and minorities.

Regarding generosity, studies have shown that people’s willingness to donate to a charitable cause is reduced if, beforehand, they wrote a short story about themselves using morally positive words (e.g., fair, kind) than if they wrote a short story about themselves using morally negative words (selfish, mean). The same thing happened if people simply thought about an instance in which they behaved morally rather than immorally. When people’s self-image of being moral is top of mind, they feel licensed to behave in less than moral ways.

So, on the one hand, there is evidence that behaving in a certain way or even thinking about those behaviors causes people to do more of the same. On the other hand, there is evidence that prior acts (or reflecting on prior acts) of morality may make people less likely to behave consistently with their past actions. What makes it go one way rather than the other? One watershed factor is how people think about or construe their behavior. All behavior can be construed in abstract ways or in concrete ways. Abstract construals reflect the “forest,” which refers to the central or defining feature of a behavior. Concrete construals reflect the “trees,” which refers to the specific details of a behavior. Abstract construals focus on the why or deeper meaning of behavior whereas concrete construals focus on the details of how the behavior was enacted. For instance, “developing a procedure” may be construed abstractly as increasing work efficiency or concretely as writing down step-by-step instructions. “Contributing to charity” may be construed abstractly as doing the right thing or concretely as writing a check.

When people construe their behavior abstractly they see it as reflective of their values, their identity, in short, of themselves. When people engage in behavior perceived to reflect themselves it induces them to show more of the same. However, when the same behavior is construed concretely, it is seen as less relevant to who they are. A moral act viewed concretely provides evidence to people that they are moving in the direction of being a moral person, thereby freeing them up subsequently to succumb to more selfish desires. Supporting this reasoning, Paul Conway and Johanna Sheetz showed that when people viewed their acts of morality abstractly they continued to behave morally whereas when they viewed those same behaviors concretely they subsequently behaved more selfishly.

Not only is it intriguing that moral behavior can foster more of the same or less, but also it is practically important to consider when behaving morally will have one effect rather than the other. People in authority positions, such as parents, teachers, and managers, typically want those over whom they have authority to behave morally over the longer haul. This may happen when children, students, and employees construe their acts of morality abstractly rather than concretely. Moreover, authorities have at their disposal a variety of ways to bring about abstract construals, such as: (1) encouraging people to think about why they are engaging in a given behavior rather than how they are doing so, (2) getting people to think categorically (e.g., by asking questions such as, “Downsizing is an example of what?”) rather than in terms of examples (“What is an example of organizational change?”), and (3) thinking about their behavior from the vantage point of greater psychological distance; for instance, when people think about how their extra efforts to benefit the organization will pay off over the long-term, they may be more likely to engage in such activities consistently than if they merely thought about the more immediate benefits.

In The Process Matters, I emphasize that even small differences in how people are treated by authorities can have a big impact on what they think, feel, and do. Here, I am raising a related point: a subtle difference in how people think about their behavior dictates whether their expressions of morality will beget more or less.

Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. He is the author of A Contemporary Look at Organizational Justice: Multiplying Insult Times Injury and Self-Esteem at Work, and the coauthor of Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts.

Brockner