Guest Post by Jennifer Jordan: What do you and Elliot Spitzer have in common?

In September of 2002 Fortune Magazine profiled up-and-coming attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, describing him as “unequivocal” in his targeted crackdown of the corruption pervading Wall Street. Later, in his role as governor of New York, this dynamo signed into law strong legislation against prostitution. Less than a year after enacting this crackdown on prostitution, Spitzer resigned from his gubernatorial post amidst charges that he paid over $15,000 for assignations with prostitutes and financed the hotel room for these rendezvous with campaign funds. Spitzer’s fall from grace is now an all too familiar fable. You may rush to single out this anecdote (or perhaps Mr. Spitzer himself) as an exception – a morally-misguided anomaly. But is Mr. Spitzer really so singular in his moral inconsistency? Our research suggests not.

Most of us engage in what we call moral compensation: the tendency to follow a moral behavior with an immoral behavior (known as moral licensing) and an immoral behavior with a moral behavior (known as moral cleansing). In fact, my collaborators and I (Elizabeth Mullen of Stanford University and Keith Murnighan of Northwestern) are not the only ones to have documented this phenomenon – evidence of moral licensing and moral cleansing have existing in the psychological literature for about a decade. But why do we morally compensate? Why are we such “moral flip floppers”? Our research suggests that it is the desire to see ourselves as moral that leads us to follow immoral behavior with moral behavior and moral behavior with immoral behavior.

If I were to ask you right now, “Are you a moral person?,” how would you respond? Regardless of how you define “moral,” I’d wager a guess that you could easily generate examples of five immoral things that you’ve done in the last month, as well as examples of five moral things – placing you in some kind of purgatory of moral-being. However, in spite of such uncertainty in the sanctity of your moral state, I’d also assume you’d say that one thing that is constant, reliable, and unyielding is your desire to be a moral person.

The motivation behind my little mental exercise is not to introduce uncertainty into your moral self-concept, but rather to demonstrate the fundamental motivation behind the moral compensation phenomenon: the motivation to be a moral person. In other words, I don’t think that you are so unique in your mercurial moral behavior, nor in your unwavering strivings to be a moral person. And it is precisely this striving that creates consistently inconsistent moral behavior. When we do something immoral, we realize how far we are from the moral selves that we hope to become – propelling us towards morality. And when we do something moral, we feel like we can relax our moral effort, allowing ourselves to engage in immoral behavior.

But maybe Mr. Spitzer already knew this. As Fortune Magazine wrote:

He operates on the premise that the people at the top of the corporate world who let this happen are not a bunch of loose cannons and moral pygmies but most often are people not terribly unlike the rest of us, subject to motivations that can be understood, incentives that can be controlled–and even, sometimes, a desire to be good.

– Jennifer Jordan is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at University of Groningen (her homepage). She hails from New Jersey, just like me.