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Apr. 22 2009 - 4:18 pm | 119 views | 4 recommendations | 21 comments

The Al Gore’s Giant Fraggin’ Mansion Effect

Earth Day Flag, Planet Earth, Waving Wind Blowing

Image by BL1961 via Flickr

Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard this Earth Day — it could be bad for the environment.

That is: If you’re too-well-satisfied that you’re a good greenie, you’re more willing to cut yourself slack when you hurt the environment.

Call it the Al Gore’s Giant Fraggin’ Mansion Effect.

According to a new study in Psychological Science, humans engage in a process called “moral self-regulation.” Basically, we’re constantly calculating the trade-off between being able to see ourselves as good people and the cost of engaging in all that non-advantageous goodness.

You might expect that being prompted (primed) to think of yourself as a good person would make you more altruistic or moral — but, in fact, the exact opposite appears to be the case. Primed to think about what a good person you are, your most likely reaction is to think you’ve paid your morality dues and go on about your business.

The researchers tested it this way, as recounted by Neuronarrative:

In the first experiment, participants were asked to write a self-relevant story using words that referred to either their positive or negative traits.  After finishing, they were told that the research lab was interested in supporting social awareness and usually asks participants if they would like to make a small donation to the charity of their choice. Participants were told they could write down the charity and the amount they wanted to donate (note, they were not aware of any link between the story they wrote and the charity donation).  The result: participants who used positive words about themselves in their stories donated one fifth as much money as those who used negative words.

In a follow-up experiment, subject were asked to pay to control pollution from a manufacturing plant. As in the first experiment, those primed with positive words about themselves chose the less-altruistic option: to pollute and maximize profit.

So, what does this mean for you, personally?

If you’ve given some money to charity at Christmas, you’ll probably excuse yourself from volunteering all year (or, at least you’d have an easier time doing so).

If you feel you’ve proven your non-prejudiced bona fides by combating racism in private or public, you’re more likely to forgive yourself for acting prejudiced in your own life.

And, if you’ve replaced every bulb in your home with a compact fluorescent, you’re more likely to forget about the impact of flying around on a private jet (celebrities only).

Now, I’m of the opinion that most “green” personal choices are already completely about moral vanity — their scale makes them meaningless while endowing the environmentalist with a great sense of self-worth. So, the real effect of Earth Day, I think, is for this smugness to get a significant one-day boost. Which, the research would suggest, gives the green-conscious an internal license to be total bastards in some other area of their lives.

Happy Earth Day!


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  1. collapse expand

    Ah, this is old news. As long as you are on the side of angels, then nobody really minds that you fly your personal 747 around the world to promote the cause.

    Be Like Bono is the new Be Like Mike

  2. collapse expand

    And the fact that behavior is sometimes nuanced with contradictory and hypocritical motives is what… news? Yes, this is a perennial discovery for those just entering adulthood. But guess what, discovering that people have cynical motives doesn’t change the the world’s imperatives one whit. And the fact that others are hypocrites doesn’t give you a free pass from examining your own motives and behavior. At least not for all those who make it over sophomore’s hill, deciding to be more than intellectual teenagers for the rest of their lives.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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