Most of us consider ourselves to be good or moral people, the heroes of our own stories so to speak. Even so we all seem to lapse from time to time into behaviour that is difficult to reconcile with our view of ourselves. Perhaps it is something small like keeping the extra change a check-out person gives you or perhaps a larger slip like cheating on a test, or your partner. Why is it that we can sometimes not help ourselves from falling into those ethical traps and why is it that those we look up to as moral paragons seem to fall furthest with despairing regularity? There are of course probably many reasons why those in the public eye may come crashing down amid spectacular revelations of alleged debauchery but one that is receiving attention at the moment is the notion of “Moral Credentialing”.

This concept, as discussed in this Boston Globe article, posits that humans exist in a kind of moral equilibrium, that any departure from our moral set point prompts action to return to baseline. In three different experiments researchers at Northwestern University, Illinois, looked at how increasing or decreasing a person’s moral barometer affects their subsequent behaviour. For the first two experiments the subjects were told they were participating in a handwriting analysis test and afterward were given the opportunity to give up to $10 dollar to the charity of their choice. The subjects were then given lists of either positive or negative words to copy, reflect on and write a self referential story using. The positive list included words like kind, caring and honest while the negative list included words like selfish, dishonest and cruel.

After writing the stories those in the negative group gave an average of $5 dollars while those in the positive group only gave $1. A neutral group was also included whose word list had things like book, car and house; these subjects gave approximately $3. In the second experiment subjects were spilt into four groups and asked to write either a positive or negative story about themselves or about someone close to them (Positive/self, positive/other, negative/self, negative/other). Those who wrote positive stories about themselves donated less than those who wrote positive stories about someone else while those writing negatively about themselves gave more than those writing negatively of others.

In the third experiment the researchers looked at practical behaviour, specifically involving environmental considerations. The subjects were cast in the role of manufacturing plant managers and given the choice of whether to implement a costly filtering system for their smokestacks. They were told that other managers had decided to run the filters 60% of the time and so those that used them more than this would incur higher costs. Participants who had been primed to feel negatively about themselves operated the filters 73% of the time while those in the positive condition only ran them 55%. Neutrally primed subjects used the filters 60-65%.

These findings fit with research into other aspects of our lives which suggest we have inbuilt levels for our psychological needs and will adjust our behaviour to keep them constant. For instance studies have shown that making cars safer may actually promote unsafe driving practices. People adjust their driving behaviour to maintain a certain level of risk, anti-lock breaks and air-bags allow people to justify driving faster and following closer because they perceive the risk to be similar to driving more carefully in less safe car.

Unsurprisingly this view of human morality does not make for optimistic reading nor does it seem to correlate how people view themselves. People consider themselves as essentially moral with occasional lapses not as constantly see-sawing like a poor funambulist trying to keep his balance. The key to consistent moral of ethical behaviour may be to make good deeds more routine and habitual instead of accomplishments of their own, in this way they cease to be goals we achieve and then use to prop up our moral self-esteem but become simply another part of our lives.