Remember that episode of South Park when Kyle’s dad gets a hybrid car and suddenly begins to sport a “high and mighty” attitude? With Kyle and Ike in tow, Gerald rides around town in what appears to be Toyota Prius, insulting others who drive non-hybrids, bonding with fellow hybrid owners over their general awesomeness, and blatantly ignoring that “Ike is starving to death” in the backseat. In the bit linked here, the scene ends with Gerald setting off to give “awareness citations” to SUVs in the parking lot of the local hardware store.
The episode certainly got a good chuckle out of viewers – perhaps even some hybrid owners – but who knew at the time that this pattern of behavior was no joke? According to Nina Mazur and Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, new research to be released this month in Psychological Science counterintuitively suggests that supposedly virtuous shopping can actually lead to immoral behavior. They find that although mere exposure to “green” products encourages people to be more altruistic, people who actually purchase these same products are more likely to act immorally or unethically after their purchase in the form of sharing less money with an anonymous partner and, in one study, actually cheating and stealing more money (compared to participants who made purchases at a conventional store). The researchers claim that whereas participants who are merely exposed to “green” products are primed with an air of social responsibility and moral capital, participants who actually get a chance to buy the product subsequently experience a phenomenon known as licensing. That is, a person who purchases a “green” product might come to feel that he has earned some sort of moral credential via the purchase, thereby giving him privilege to engage in future asocial and unethical behavior.
What do you think? Are you a purchaser of “green” products? If so, how many times did you congratulate yourself today on your awesomeness? And, while we’re at it, how many pennies did you steal this week from those nice little “give a penny, take a penny” pots at the local coffee shop? We now understand why you’re doing it, but luckily we don’t have to suffer the stench of your immorality over the exhaust of our Hummers and Jeep SRTs.