Sinning saints and other quandaries

Sinning saints and other quandaries July 2, 2009

Priests and other moral figureheads sometimes go bad. That’s inevitable, given that there are so many of them. Still, it makes you wonder if there’s something more complex going on. Could it be that moral authority actually contributes to immorality?

Back in 2007 there was a study that suggested one way this could happen. People who are convinced of their moral correctness were found to actually be more likely to cheat – because they were more likely to feel that their cheating could be justified.

Now a new study suggests that people have a moral ‘set point’. Do a good deed, and the temptation is to make up for it by doing something naughty.

Other studies have shown the moral-cleansing effect, but this new Northwestern model shows that the cleansing also has to do with restoring an ideal level of moral self-worth. In other words, when people operate above or below a certain level of moral self-worth, they instinctively push back in the opposite direction to reach an internally regulated set point of goodness.

“If people feel too moral,” Sachdeva said, “they might not have sufficient incentive to engage in moral action because of the costliness of being good.” Science Daily

Basically, this was a priming study. The participants were asked to write a short essay either on doing a good deed, or a bad one, or neutral. Those who wrote about doing a good deed were least generous in a variety of follow up tests, especially when the good deed they wrote about was their own.

The next step, apparently, is to see whether the results hold for other cultures.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Browse Our Archives