Do Past Moral Choices Justify Future Immoral Choices?

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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  • Olivia

    October 16th, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    Of course I think that the last sentence sums it all up perfectly. It is as if most of us, and include myself in this statement too, do things and say things that we think will make us look better to others, regardless of whether it is a stretch of the truth or not. I want to be honest about my actions and how I feel in certain situations, but when I look at it I know that saying or doing what I may actually feel will make me look really bad to someone else. So I may embellish or withhold depending on what I think will place me in the most favorable light. Haven’t we all done that from time to time?

  • dana n

    October 16th, 2012 at 3:42 PM

    Choices that we make today should not be made as a result of what we have chosen in the past. You need to take each decision as individual and unique and do what needs to be done at this specific point in time that you know is right and just.

  • Catherine

    October 17th, 2012 at 3:59 AM

    This is kind of the argument for the fact that life is all about the previous body of work over each individual decision. I am not sure that I always go along with that. Yes, the past can have a good deal of sway over how others view you, but that doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility for having to own each individual decision too. The past can’t make up for dumb things that you might so in the future.

  • Calvert

    October 17th, 2012 at 9:35 AM

    If past affects the now then the now will affect the future.There is no way I would let my good work in the past be a reason or an excuse for doing something wrong in the present!

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