The Moral Self, Private and Public: The Effect of Face-to-Face Interaction on Moral Licensing and Compensation

by Meredith Grey and Victoria Iglesias


The phenomenon of moral licensing has been well studied, and its strength can be seen in its effect on behaviour and choices despite other pressures of social interaction on expression of the moral self. This study used face-to-face interviews (as opposed to online questionnaires) to pit moral licensing against moral self-presentational desires in their paper Striving for the Moral Self: The Effects of Recalling Past Moral Actions on Future Moral Behavior (2011). Participants recalled (im)moral behaviours before answering questions about moral intention, and despite the pressure to present themselves as morally commendable, people who recalled moral behaviour reported weaker social intentions than those who recalled immoral behaviour. Thus, the study shows that the effect of moral licensing and compensation is stronger than the the desire to present oneself to others as a morally ‘good’.


Social psychology focuses on how the individual interacts with her/his environment as well as other beings, and the effects of these socialisations on the individual. There is much discourse within the social psychology field which overlaps with varying philosophical frameworks, including morality. What is deemed as ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ has been thought about, analysed and debated for centuries, and conducts essentially all of human conduct.

Similarly, humanitarianism, philanthropy and charity are all concepts that ascribe to the idea that the human experience is a shared one. As members of a species, of societies and of communities, we collectively recognize there is value in helping each other out. This attitude is popular in the United States, but it also exists in stark contrast to the narrative of the American Dream — a capitalist attitude touting self-reliance and personal responsibility as the ultimate values– that pervades both political and social discourse in this country. The status of both national and global inequality– be it between race or class, in relation to income, power or access– clearly shows that there is conflict between altruism and individualism in social attitudes, and there is disagreement about how the psychology surrounding how individuals choose to navigate such moral/ideological terrain.

With this in mind, many have begun to explore when, how and why people choose to act according to self interest versus altruism, and social media is a particularly good place to source information about such behaviour. A recent example that provided the seed of this research idea was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a campaign started by the ALS Foundation to raise awareness of and money for research about the debilitating disease. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord. This degeneration of the motor neurons eventually leads the affected individual to death. In the summer of 2014, to shed awareness to this dreadful disease, the ALS foundation started the Ice Bucket Challenge. The challenge consisted of a viral video on various platforms of social media in which individuals poured ice water over their heads and/or donated money to the ALS Foundation, nominating their friends in the process. Videos began popping up on social media earlier this year, and the concept spread like wildfire across the internet.

In the wake of the frenzy, many began wondering about the personal and social context of an activity like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: what are our motivations, are they straightforward, and is the outcome ultimately beneficial? One such article published in Quartz, a news and opinion website, proposed that perhaps this type of public display of humanitarianism was in fact playing into the concept of moral licensing.

According to Anna Merritt, Daniel Effron and Benoit Monin, authors of Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad, Moral Licensing is when “past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviours that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic; behaviours that they would otherwise avoid for a fear or feeling or appearing immoral.” (Polman et al. 2013) Explained another way, doing a good deed gives you the impression that you have made a deposit into your moral bank, which you can withdraw later if you want to do something morally dubious. In our research we hope to question the role of public vs. private morality, and what effect being in the presence of others has on our moral licensing behaviour.

Our research in particular questions what Greene & Low focused on in Public Integrity, Private Hypocrisy and the Moral Licensing Effect (2014). Greene & Low begin by reiterating the evidence for moral self-licensing, and introducing the separate question of public vs. private morality, as a set up for their study which investigated the interaction of these two concepts. Their hypothesis was as follows:

“We expected that participants across prime conditions would favour private transgressions to public ones; that across privacy conditions credentialed participants would favour transgressions more than would those with moral deficits; that participants would be most averse to transgression after they had incurred moral deficits and the behaviour was public; and that, above all, transgressions would be most probable, and perceived as most permissible, among credentialed participants in private.” (Greene, Low 2014) This hypothesis is similar to our own in that it suggests that the effect of moral licensing will be reduced in public settings. To test their theory, Greene & Low created and administered an online survey to 102 undergraduate students, randomly assigned into one of six conditions (private credential, private deficit, private control, and the same three for public) by priming them with a writing task about a time they helped others (credential), a time they hurt others (deficit) and a typical Tuesday (control). They were then asked to respond to a moral dilemma in which they were to “commit an immoral act for some personal gain”. The context of the situations were different depending on whether the individual was in the public or private group.

The results of the study showed that the moral licensing effect that was present in the public group, “disappeared when behaviour was conducted in public”, a conclusion that supports our hypothesis. We hope to build on this work by making the public/private scenario more realistic in so far as the participants answering the question in the presence of other people, and we hope to discover whether the presence of other people from whom participants may feel pressure to present themselves as morally ‘good’ negates the effect of moral licensing.


Participants and Design: We recruited participants (n = 30, 60% Women) through an email blast sent out to new school students and faculty as well as flyers placed around campus. We randomly assigned them to the moral, immoral or control condition.

Procedures: Participants were escorted by one of the investigators into a room, after being told they will be participating in a study about memory and recollection. Participants were told they were being recorded for the study. The investigator asked participants to describe their typical Tuesday (control) or a time they helped other people (moral) or a time they used others to get what they wanted (immoral). Participants answered a filler set of 10 trivia questions before responding to a series of randomly ordered items about their likelihood of donating to charity, donating blood, volunteering, vacationing, attending a party, and seeing a movie in the next month (5-point scales: –2 = very unlikely, +2 = very likely.)

Story Coding: The other investigators (class) listened to the recalled behaviour, evaluated the morality. (7 point scale: –3 = very immoral, +3 = very moral.). The means of the coders scores were found for each story and used for analysis.


Manipulation check: The recall manipulation had the intended effect: Coders rated stories in the moral condition as more moral than stories in the immoral condition. A one-way ANOVA revealed a significant effect of condition on the coders’ morality ratings, F(2, 27)=71.632, p = .00 (see Table 1).

Prosocial Intentions: Contrary to our hypothesis, face-to-face interaction did not negate the effects of moral licensing. Participants recalling moral/immoral acts in their priming essays lead to compensatory prosocial behaviour in the later questionnaire. A one-way ANOVA on participants prosocial intentions revealed a significant effect of condition, F(2, 27) = 4.952, p = .015 (see Figure 1, Table 1). Post hoc comparisons using the Tukey HSD test indicated that relative to controls (M = -.5922, SD = .74060), participants in the positive (moral) condition had marginally weaker prosocial intentions (M = -.9082, SD = .57875), and participants in the negative (immoral) condition had somewhat stronger prosocial intentions (M= .1660, SD = 1.02186). Neither difference, however, was significant (see Figure 1).

Leisure activities. A one-way ANOVA revealed that participants’ intentions to engage in leisure activities did not significantly differ as a function of condition, F(2,27) = 0.83, p = .15 (see Table 1).


These results, while contradicting the initial hypothesis, strengthen the seeming effect of the moral licensing phenomenon, specifically when placed in conflict with peoples’ desire to present themselves outwardly as moral beings in the company of others. By utilising the same questions and structure as Jordan et al., we are able to draw conclusions in direct comparison with the findings of that study. By changing the setting from an online survey however to a face-to-face interview, we were expecting to see– as Greene and Lowe found– that the public sphere and the pressure of social interaction overrode moral licensing and compensation. However, this did not occur, which suggests that moral licensing and compensations are strong enough phenomena to pervade judgement even when other social and personal moral pressures are involved.

Prior to running the questionnaire, we deceived participants into believing they were participating in a (vaguely defined) study about memory and perception. This was necessary to prevent self-consciousness surrounding their moral or immoral actions and responses, and any resulting dishonesty or response misrepresentation, as they would be a confounding variables in assessing the phenomena of moral licensing. This deception was consistent with the methods of Jordan et al.

After statistical analysis, we found that the mean morality of the answers in the control group were closer to the mean morality of the positive (moral) group than to that of the negative (immoral). This suggests that the tendency to compensate for a negative moral prime is stronger than the tendency to license from a positive moral prime.

Through our interview process, we did come across a flaw in Jordan et al.’s experiment design. In the prosocial/moral intention questions, participants were asked how likely they would be to donate blood in the next month. Presently, men who have sex with men (MSM) as well as their sexual partners (including women) are indefinitely prohibited from donating blood (other factors, such as travel and tattoos can result in temporary deferrals also). Out of 30 participants, we found six that had difficulty answering the question due to this fact, stating that they were “unable” to donate blood, with one participant noting that this was a “very controversial issue”. The participants who could not donate blood were evenly distributed between the priming groups, so these implications do not skew our results. However it should be noted that the question is unreliable because it is not universally applicable. Furthermore, because of convenience, our participants were all students at the New School, creating a small and homogenous sample with a potential bias due to The New School’s liberal and socially-conscious nature.


Our findings are paralleled with the authors, that individuals have powerful inclinations to be moral. Our findings further prove the significance of positive and negative priming, as well as the fact that individuals morally licensed significantly whether answering by online questionnaire or verbally. These results not only continue to work in favour of the belief of moral licensing and its strength, but potentially shed light on human decision-making. We asked our questions in a controlled setting, but what does moral licensing look like on a wider, daily scale in how we conduct our day-to-day lives? The questions our experiment raises could answer much about the decision making process as well as the subjectivity of morals, and how an individual may justify them.

Works Cited

- Jordan, Jennifer, Elizabeth Mullen, and J. Murningham. “Striving for the Moral Self: The Effects of Recalling Past Moral Actions on Future Moral Behavior.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37.701 (2011): 700–13. PsycINFO Database with Full Text. Web.

  • Greene, Meredith, and Kathyn Low. “Public Integrity, Private Hypocrisy, and the Moral Licensing Effect.” Social Behavior and Personality (2014): 391–400. PsycINFO Database with Full Text. Web.
  • Polman, Evan, Nathan Pettit, and Batia Wiesenfeld. “Effects of Wrongdoer Status on Moral Licensing.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49 (n.d.): 614–23. PsycINFO Database with Full Text. Web