We all love a good “pay it forward” story. But according to new research, the likelihood of good behavior actually leading to more good behavior depends on a person’s ethical mindset. Psychological scientist Gert Cornelissen of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain, who published a study in the journal Psychological Science, set out to answer whether doing a good deed leads to more good deeds, or whether people naturally try to balance their good and not-so-good actions.
Cornelissen and his colleagues say that until now, research on the subject has been divided into two separate camps. Some researchers have found evidence suggesting that people hover around a moral set point. Going over the set point by doing a good deed gives license to “balance” it by engaging in more self-interested or immoral behavior. On the other hand, when our moral self-perception falls below the set point, we naturally try to regain moral balance by doing something good. The second idea gleaned from research argues for consistency – that doing good makes people want to do more good, and unethical behavior leads to more of the same.
Cornelissen claims that his team’s research bridges the gap between the two theories. In fact, he says, people’s “ethical mindset,” combined with their past behavior, determines how they will choose to act in a certain situation. People who believe that right and wrong is a matter of principle are more likely to be consistent in their behavior, while those whose mindset is that the “end justifies the means” are more likely to balance good deeds and morally questionable deeds.
One of the experiments that the team performed was to ask participants to recall recent ethical behavior, and later gave them a pot of money to divide. Participants with an outcome-based mindset gave their partners fewer coins after remembering a good deed, and were also more likely to lie when presented with the opportunity to self-report the number of items they had answered correctly on a test. These results suggest that their mindset allowed them to balance out past good behavior with an unethical act.
On the other hand, those participants with rule-based mentalities gave more coins to their partner and were less likely to lie about the test after recalling their own good deeds.
The researchers say that understanding the ethical mindset of an individual can be useful for predicting patterns of behavior for people in any kind of role, including consumers, managers, employees, neighbors or citizens. And as to why some people are consistently immoral, the report says, “In the current studies, we showed that a rule-based mindset can lead to a consistent pattern of unethical behavior, in which violating a rule becomes the norm. Such a pattern resembles the slippery slope of moral decision making.”
How about you? Do you believe that people give themselves leeway to do unethical things if they’ve done something good in the past? Or does performing a good deed lead to more good behavior? Weigh in here.