Prof. Nina Mazar, who co-authored the study with Prof. Chen-Bo Zhong, was quick to point out that this study is less about green consumers, and more about moral behaviour in general.
"Our study is not about green consumers, the green movement, or green products," says Mazar. "The purpose of this research is to reveal a general human process of moral regulation, how feeling good from doing good things can have the potential of licensing unethical or selfish behaviors."
While previous studies have shown that performing good acts can, ironically, lead to subsequent immoral acts, the purpose of this study was to place this principle in a context of green consumerism. "Building on these other studies, we wanted to see whether the act of purchasing green products, which is commonly seen as ethical, can have the similar ironic [moral] licensing effect," says Mazar.
The first of three experiments established that people tend to perceive consumers of green products as more cooperative and altruistic than those who did not.
The second experiment divided participants into two groups: those who were exposed to green products (i.e., told to browse and rate various green products) and those who were allowed to purchase them at one of two mock web-stores. People then played a game in which they were able to either keep money, or donate it to another anonymous participant. Those who were exposed to, but did not purchase, green products tended to be more generous in the giveaway game, whereas those who purchased green products were less altruistic on average.
Another group of participants was involved in a game in which they were presented with opportunities to lie and steal in order to increase their personal payout for their participation. Again, those who were consumers of green products in the web-stores were more likely to lie, cheat, and steal their way to larger shares of cash.
While the study does not suggest that people who buy eco-friendly goods are necessarily going to commit morally questionable acts as a result, it does show that a statistical correlation exists. Think of Al Capone and his soup kitchens for poor people, or the Oxfam donator who is frequently rude and demanding towards restaurant servers. Not everyone who does good things is going to do bad in the future, but some people may think, or hold it subconsciously, that they have acquired a license to engage in bad behaviour after doing a good deed.
Mazar says that she would next like to study some possible ways to counteract "the licensing effect."
The study will be published in an upcoming edition of Psychological Science, and is also available at http://www.rotman.utoronto.ca/newthinking.