Doing your good deed for the day


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Scott Alexander

Interesting new study out on moral behavior. The one sentence summary of the most interesting part is that people who did one good deed were less likely to do another good deed in the near future. They had, quite literally, done their good deed for the day.

In the first part of the study, they showed that people exposed to environmentally friendly, "green" products were more likely to behave nicely. Subjects were asked to rate products in an online store; unbeknownst to them, half were in a condition where the products were environmentally friendly, and the other half in a condition where the products were not. Then they played a Dictator Game. Subjects who had seen environmentally friendly products shared more of their money.

In the second part, instead of just rating the products, they were told to select $25 worth of products to buy from the store. One in twenty five subjects would actually receive the products they'd purchased. Then they, too, played the Dictator Game. Subjects who had bought environmentally friendly products shared less of their money.

In the third part, subjects bought products as before. Then, they participated in a "separate, completely unrelated" experiment "on perception" in which they earned money by identifying dot patterns. The experiment was designed such that participants could lie about their perceptions to earn more. People who purchased the green products were more likely to do so.

This does not prove that environmentalists are actually bad people - remember that whether a subject purchased green products or normal products was completely randomized. It does suggest that people who have done one nice thing feel less of an obligation to do another.

This meshes nicely with a self-signalling conception of morality. If part of the point of behaving morally is to convince yourself that you're a good person, then once you're convinced, behaving morally loses a lot of its value.

By coincidence, a few days after reading this study, I found this article by Dr. Beck, a theologian, complaining about the behavior of churchgoers on Sunday afternoon lunches. He says that in his circles, it's well known that people having lunch after church tend to abuse the waitstaff and tip poorly. And he blames the same mechanism identified by Mazar and Zhong in their Dictator Game. He says that, having proven to their own satisfaction that they are godly and holy people, doing something else godly and holy like being nice to others would be overkill.

It sounds...strangely plausible.

If this is true, then anything that makes people feel moral without actually doing good is no longer a harmless distraction. All those biases that lead people to give time and money and thought to causes that don't really merit them waste not only time and money, but an exhaustible supply of moral fiber (compare to Baumeister's idea of willpower as a limited resource).

People here probably don't have to worry about church. But some of the other activities Dr. Beck mentions as morality sinkholes seem appropriate, with a few of the words changed:

Bible study
Voting Republican
Going on spiritual retreats
Reading religious books
Arguing with evolutionists
Sending your child to a Christian school or providing education at home
Using religious language
Avoiding R-rated movies
Not reading Harry Potter.


Let's not get too carried away with the evils of spiritual behavior - after all, data do show that religious people still give more to non-religious charities than the nonreligious do. But the points in and of themselves are valid. I've seen Michael Keenan and Patri Friedman say exactly the same thing regarding voting, and I would add to the less religion-o-centric list:

Joining "1000000 STRONG AGAINST WORLD HUNGER" type Facebook groups
Reading a book about the struggles faced by poor people, and telling people how emotional it made you
"Raising awareness of problems" without raising awareness of any practical solution
Taking (or teaching) college courses about the struggles of the less fortunate
Many forms of political, religious, and philosophical arguments

My preferred solution to this problem is to consciously try not to count anything I do as charitable or morally relevant except actually donating money to organizations. It is a bit extreme, but, like Eliezer's utilitarian foundation for deontological ethics, sometimes to escape the problems inherent in running on corrupted hardware you have to jettison all the bathwater, even knowing it contains a certain number of babies. A lot probably slips by subconsciously, but I find it better than nothing (at least, I did when I was actually making money; it hasn't worked since I went back to school. Your mileage may vary.

It may be tempting to go from here to a society where we talk much less about morality, especially little bits of morality that have no importance on their own. That might have unintended consequences. Remember that the participants in the study who saw lots of environmentally friendly products but couldn't buy any ended up nicer. The urge to be moral seems to build up by anything priming us with thoughts of morality.

But to prevent that urge from being discharged, we need to plug up the moral sinkholes Dr. Beck mentions, and any other moral sinkholes we can find. We need to give people less moral recognition and acclaim for performing only slightly moral acts. Only then can we concentrate our limited moral fiber on truly improving the world.

And by, "we", I mean "you". I've done my part just by writing this essay.