When people are faced with a choice that can cast a light on their morality, they often look to how their past decisions have shaped others’ perceptions of them. For instance, if a person must choose a financial option that could make them look cheap, they may look to the past and determine that all prior decisions were financially generous. Their past helps shade them in a generous light, making a frugal or cheap future decision less harmful to their image. Moral identity plays a role in many types of decisions, including those related to racism. When faced with a choice that could make them appear racist, do people with a track record of nonracist choices feel they have license to be somewhat racist? Additionally, if past choices were not overtly nonracist, do people embellish the circumstances surrounding the events in order to make their choices appear implicitly nonracist? These were the questions at the center of a study conducted by Daniel A. Effron of Stanford University’s Department of Psychology.
Effron used a hypothetical situation involving white participants faced with racist and nonracist decisions regarding people of varying races. In a series of six separate experiments, Effron found that individuals who felt as if they were quite virtuous because of past nonracist choices were more likely to make racially biased choices in the study. Further, white participants who felt that their racial tolerance was in question embellished the circumstances surrounding their self-proclaimed nonracist prior decisions. Effron believes that these results demonstrate a strategy people use to make themselves feel moral even when they have not actually done anything that warrants moral superiority. “These findings show how people will distort their past to make the road not taken seem immoral,” he said.
With respect to racism, the results of this study may shed light on interracial interactions that could appear prejudiced. When people feel as if they have been nonracially motivated in past experiences, they may have more confidence addressing current issues and less anxiety dealing with people from other races. In other words, their past virtues may make it easier for them to be honest in present situations. Or, as the results suggest, they may merely make up missing details to make themselves feel or look better.
Effron, D. A., Miller, D. T., Monin, B. (2012). Inventing racist roads not taken: The licensing effect of immoral counterfactual behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030008
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