The ‘licensing effect’, the foundation of evil?

I had a recent chat with somebody who was blatantly lying to me. The ease in which he flung lie after lie into the conversation stupefied me, particularly as his words cascaded from a moral high ground of divinity.

I quietly questioned his behavior and wondered if this was the embodiment of the “licensing effect.” Under this effect, people can rationalize bad conduct, if they first do something good. Whether in dieting, helping or politicking, the licensing effect permits people to be wicked after they have performed something deemed good.

According to Dale Miller, a psychology professor at Stanford Business School, “With licensing, the first act doesn’t commit you, it liberates you.” This liberating euphoria permits the human psyche to do what it supposedly is against. Miller’s experiments uncovered business managers who publicly declared their lack of bias in hiring minorities, for instance, but in practice showed a strong prejudice against minorities. Since these managers had declared their support for minorities, they were now free to be extremely biased.

In an interesting article in Psychological Science, two researchers argued that people who feel morally virtuous have a tendency to engage in the “licensing (of) selfish and morally questionable behavior,” also known as “moral balancing” or “compensatory ethics.” The researchers, Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen–Bo Zhong, revealed that when people try to save the planet or do noble deeds, they become less kind to others and more likely to cheat and steal. They wrote: “Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behavior.”

This discovery saddened me. I love the virtuous good-hearted human being. In fact my intention of this blog was to write about Miguel Ruiz and The Four Agreements:

1. Be impeccable with your word.
2. Don’t take anything personally.
3. Don’t make assumptions.
4. Always do your best.

However I was so disturbed with the recent conversation and the possibility of the presence of the ‘licensing effect’ that is cast a dark shadow over Miguel’s first point ‘Be impeccable with your word.’

As I sit here and write I have to believe that the ‘licensing effect’ is an exception. Being impeccable with your word certainly doesn’t give license to lying and building the foundation for ulterior motives!

The foundation of living with integrity starts and ends with your word. Honor your word as everything that comes out of your mouth is truly a reflection of you….so continue to take that stand for being impeccable with your word…no exceptions!

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