So you decided to buy a nontoxic cleaning product? Good for you. Just don’t get too self-congratulatory. Purchasing a green product could make you more likely to behave more selfishly down the road, a new study reveals.
Researchers at the University of Toronto asked college students to shop for products online from either an eco-friendly or a conventional store. Then, in a classic experiment known as the dictator game, subjects were asked to divide a small sum of money between themselves and a stranger. Those who shopped at the green store shared, on average, less of their money.
The investigators believe that a “licensing effect” might be at work. “When we engage in a good deed, that gives us a kind of satisfaction,” says Nina Mazar, professor of marketing and a co-author of the paper. With that self-satisfied feeling can come tacit permission to behave more selfishly next time we have the opportunity, Mazar says. Previous research has documented this licensing effect in other contexts; a study published last year revealed that asking people to ruminate on their humanitarian qualities actually reduced their charitable giving.
Next, Mazar is particularly interested in exploring the policy implications of this licensing effect; for instance, one study suggested that people who make their homes more energy-efficient start cranking up their heat. She hopes to determine whether simply making people aware of these kinds of tendencies could help combat them.