In early July, Drake Bennett had a terrific article in the Boston Globe, titlted “The nature of temptation: Why those who speak against vice so often fall for it.” Here are some excerpts.
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There are plenty of people who cheat on their spouses, plenty of people who hire prostitutes. It’s hardly unheard of for an office to be plagued by a boss sending sexually explicit emails to underlings, even much younger ones, or for a man to solicit sex in a public restroom or to hire a male prostitute and then buy drugs from him.
In other words, it’s not just public figures with careers built around denouncing moral turpitude – crusading prosecutors like Eliot Spitzer, evangelical leaders like Ted Haggard, socially conservative politicians like Mark Foley, David Vitter and Larry Craig – who end up confessing to those very acts. And yet, with the back-to-back revelations of marital infidelity by Nevada senator John Ensign and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, two more cultural conservatives, the question once again arises: why is it that people who set themselves up as moral paragons seem to have the hardest time living up to their own standards?
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It’s almost as if a reputation for morality is a gateway into vice.
And in fact, according to a growing body of psychological research, that may be exactly what’s going on. The study of how we form opinions of our own moral worth is a budding field, and it suggests that the human mind works in powerful, subtle ways to make hypocrites out of all of us – especially those who hold themselves in the highest moral esteem. People who inveigh against a vice in others are often themselves fixated on it, and more likely to succumb to its allure. And, the research suggests, virtuous deeds are often a form of penance for thoughts a person is ashamed of.
Indeed, recent work has suggested that the very act of seeing oneself as a good person can make it harder to avoid doing immoral things. In part it’s a matter of rationalization, and the better a person we think we are, the better we are at rationalizing. In part it stems from the oddly perishable nature of human self-control, and the way that, like a muscle, it tires after extended use. But also in operation, the researchers suggest, is a sort of moral “set point”: an innate human sense that there is such a thing as too much moral behavior. And when we stray too far from the mean in either direction – even if it’s toward saintliness – we revert, sometimes spectacularly.
“If you have a holier-than-thou attitude about temptation, you probably are ushering it in,” says Loran Nordgren, a social psychologist and assistant professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business who has studied how people underestimate the power of their impulses.
This new research may help explain the philandering of family-values politicians, but as a portrait of virtue it can feel a bit impoverished. Rather than a guide to a properly lived life, personal morality becomes a spur that grows out of guilt, or an after-the-fact story we tell ourselves about actions already decided on. And rather than a moral compass, what we may have is closer to a thermostat, stubbornly set to a comfortable moral mediocrity.
When asked about the phenomenon of the hypocritical moralizer, psychologists will often point to “projection,” an idea inherited from Freud. What it means – and there is a large literature to back it up – is that if someone is fixated on a particular worry or goal, they assume that everyone else is driven by that same worry or goal. Someone who covets his neighbor’s wife, in other words, would tend, rightly or wrongly, to see wife-coveting as a widespread phenomenon, and if that person were a politician or preacher, he might spend a lot of his time spreading the word about the dangers of adultery.
But more dangerous than this solipsistic misreading of others may be just how much we misapprehend ourselves. Psychologists and economists have repeatedly found that people are no good at predicting the power of their own urges, whether it’s sex, drugs, gambling, hunger, or simply spending too much money. George Loewenstein, a leading behavioral economist and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, calls this inability to imagine our way into the heat of the moment the “cold-to-hot empathy gap.”
And, according to work Nordgren has done, people with the most favorable opinion of their own moral fortitude seem to have the widest empathy gaps. In one study, Nordgren looked at a group of people trying to quit smoking and found that it was those who rated their willpower particularly highly who were most likely to end up smoking again within a few months. The reason, Nordgren argues, is that they were more cavalier about exposing themselves to situations where they might be tempted to smoke. It’s a tendency that he argues extends far beyond smokers. . . .
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There is other support for the idea that a strong sense of one’s own moral goodness may in fact trigger immoral or deeply selfish acts. Psychologists have started to look at what they call a “moral credentialing” effect. In this model, the ‘credential’ is a part of our self-image, a sort of merit badge we earn by doing – or merely thinking – things that make us feel good about ourselves as people.
Psychologists who study moral credentialing argue that the credentials themselves are highly perishable – people who have felt the glow of having done a good deed have also felt how quickly it begins to fade. But research suggests that during that span, when people are feeling particularly good about themselves, they’re less likely to do another good deed if the opportunity arises. A paper published this spring by Sonya Sachdeva, Rumen Iliev, and Douglas Medin of the psychology department at Northwestern University found that, if people were primed to think of themselves as good, caring people, they were actually less generous with donations, and less likely to advocate spending money on costly environmental protection measures, than people primed to think of themselves as selfish and cruel. A 2001 study by Benoît Monin and Dale Miller, two Stanford psychology professors who helped create the idea of moral credentialing, found that people given a chance to showcase their progressive views on race and gender were then more likely to make a discriminatory decision in a mock hiring setting.
“People feel like they have a free pass because they’ve amassed those moral credits as a good person,” Monin says. Someone who is constantly being reminded of their moral worth, a televangelist, say, or a strong-chinned prosecutor, might be more likely to lapse, because in a sense they’re constantly being recredentialed.
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“There’s a sort of goal turnoff effect,” says [Situationist Contributor] John Bargh, a Yale psychology professor who has done seminal work on unconscious motivation. “We’ve got a lot of different goals, from eating and drinking, and maybe sex, to higher-level ones like getting work done and making your parents proud of you. As soon as we feel like we’ve taken care of one, it drops down the list.”
Does that mean everyone with higher moral ambitions is destined to someday follow the tear-stained path of Jimmy Swaggart?
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To find out, read the entire article here.
For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Jon Ensign, and Now Mark Sanford: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation,” “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” and “Investing in Vice.”