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Moral Behavior Is Contextual, Not Universal

Are you proud of yourself for being a “green consumer”? According to a new study, association with the green movement may make us behave more altruistically, but paradoxically, buying those same products can also have the opposite effect.

Researchers found that buying green can lead people into less altruistic behavior, and even make them more likely to steal and lie than after buying conventional products.

Apparently buying products that claim to be made with low environmental impact can set up “moral credentials” in people’s minds that give license to selfish or questionable behavior. In other words, when people perceive they were “good,” that particular event may “allow” less desirable behavior in the future.

The new study is found in the forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

“This was not done to point the finger at consumers who buy green products. The message is bigger,” says Nina Mazar, a marketing professor at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and a self-admitted green consumer.

“At the end of the day, if we do one moral thing, it doesn’t necessarily mean we will be morally better in other things as well.”

Mazar, along with her co-author Chen-Bo Zhong, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Rotman School, conducted three experiments.

The first found that people perceived green consumers to be more cooperative, altruistic and ethical than those who purchased conventional products.

The second experiment showed that participants merely exposed to products from a green store shared more money in a subsequent experimental game, but those who actually made purchases in that store shared less.

The final experiment revealed that participants who bought items in the green store showed evidence of lying and stealing money in a subsequent lab game.

But are people conscious of this moral green washing going on when they buy green products and, more importantly, the license they might feel to break ethical standards? Professors Mazar and Zhong don’t know – and look forward to exploring that in further research.

Source: University of Toronto

Moral Behavior Is Contextual, Not Universal

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Moral Behavior Is Contextual, Not Universal. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 21, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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