Do good deeds make bad people?

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4 July 2014

According to the so-called ‘self-licensing effect’, committing to a virtuous act in a preceding choice may lead to behave less virtuously in the succeeding decision. Consequently, well-intentioned policies can lead to overall counter-productive effects by licensing people to behave badly in related behaviors. On the other side, motivational crowding theory argues that constraining people to adopt a desirable behavior can backfire. We use of a classroom experiment to test whether a regulatory framework to incentivize individuals to adopt pro-environmental behavior generate similar spillovers in terms of licensing effect than a non-regulatory framework. We show that the way the good deed is caused doesn’t seem to influence the licensing effect. Nevertheless, we found that business- and environmental-orientated majors react adversely to the regulatory framework. We show that environmental-orientated students exhibit higher intrinsically motivations than business-orientated ones. Accordingly, we suggest that the licensing effect is more likely to arise when the preceding ‘virtuous’ act is freely chosen (respectively regulatory caused) for non-intrinsically (respectively intrinsically) motivated individuals.