Doing Good Leads to More Good: The Reinforcing Power of a Moral Self-Concept

Abstract

What is the role of self-concept in motivating moral behavior? On one account, when people are primed to perceive themselves as “do-gooders”, conscious access to this positive self-concept will reinforce good behavior. On an alternative account, when people are reminded that they have done their “good deed for the day”, they will feel licensed to behave worse. In the current study, when participants were asked to recall their own good deeds (positive self-concept), their subsequent charitable donations were nearly twice that of participants who recalled bad deeds, or recent conversation topics, consistent with an account of moral reinforcement. In addition, among participants reporting good deeds, those who did not note whether they were recognized or unrecognized by other people donated significantly more than participants who took note of others’ responses. In sum, when people are primed to see themselves as good people, who do good for goodness’ sake, not to obtain public credit, they may be motivated to do more good.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that since participants were encouraged to list at least 5 good deeds, a participant could have reported feeling appreciated for one deed, unappreciated for another deed, and neither for the remaining deeds. Participants were coded as feeling appreciated or unappreciated if they mentioned either sentiment for any of the deeds described. In a preliminary analysis, however, we found no difference in donation amount between those participants who noted only feeling appreciated (M = 2.96) and those who noted only feeling unappreciated (M = 2.50; t(27) = 0.40 p = 0.70).

  2. 2.

    To control for possible effects of mood, eighteen participants in the “good deeds” condition also indicated ‘how happy they felt at the moment’ (1 = very, 3 = moderately, and 7 = not at all). There was no difference between donation amounts for these participants and the “good deeds” participants from whom we did not collect mood data (F(1,42) = 0.16 p = 0.90). Importantly, there was no effect of mood on the inclination to donate or not donate (t(16) = 0.84 p = 0.42) or donation amount (r(18) = 0.28 p = 0.26).

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Acknowledgments

We thank Daryl Cameron, Mike Norton, Dan Ariely, Chen-Bo Zhong, Doug Medin, Sonya Sachdeva, Joshua Knobe, and Rebecca Saxe for helpful discussion and comments. This project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

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Correspondence to Liane Young.

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Young, L., Chakroff, A. & Tom, J. Doing Good Leads to More Good: The Reinforcing Power of a Moral Self-Concept. Rev.Phil.Psych. 3, 325–334 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-012-0111-6

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Keywords

  • Moral Behavior
  • Actual Donation
  • Charitable Donation
  • Good Deed
  • Moral Reinforcement