Slate has a fascinating article this morning about how acting "green" may lead people to behave less morally.
The article describes results from a set of two-stage experiments that examined how exposure to green items and the purchase of green items affected subsequent "moral" behavior. In first stage of the "exposure" experiment, subjects were asked to evaluate items from a hypothetical on-line store. In this set-up, subjects were randomly assigned to stores that varied in the number of green and conventional goods that they carried. In the first stage of the "purchase" experiment, subjects were also randomly assigned to stores with different numbers of green goods but tasked with making purchases from the assigned store.
In the second stage of each experiment, subjects then played a dictator game in which they were given a small amount of money to allocate anonymously between themselves and somebody else. In these games, the amount of money that a subject gives to someone else is a sign of economic altruism (other- or giving-oriented preferences). A purely selfish person would keep all the money for himself or herself, while a person who has strong concerns about fairness, others' well-being, or the appearance of these things gives some money away.
In the exposure experiment, the researchers found that subjects who were exposed to green goods gave more in the dictator game (behaved more altruistically) than those who were just exposed to conventional goods. The result is consistent with a "demonstration effect" in which exposure to good behavior prompts people to incorporate that norm into their subsequent behavior.
The really interesting result, however, came in the purchase experiment. Subjects who made green purchases gave less money in the dictator game than people who made conventional purchases.
The researchers followed these experiments up with another in which subjects were randomly assigned to purchase green or conventional goods and then given a task that tested their honesty. Once again, purchasing green goods was associated with less moral behavior.
The experiments are highly artificial, and some of the differences in moral behavior were very marginal. However, the results are consistent with a type of "licensing" in which performing one moral act gives people latitude to act less morally later. Licensing itself is consistent with people having preferences over moral and selfish acts and balancing their behavior across these acts.
This type of moral accounting could explain other phenomena, such as people's behavior in church parking lots. After an hour of prayer, reflection, and fellowship, congregants cut each other off and curse each other in the parking lot. An hour devoted to a higher purpose gives them license to act like jerks the minute they get behind the wheel.
In the experiment and the parking lot examples, the moral behavior comes first. However, the sequence could also be reversed. You could think of cases where people atone for immoral acts by subsequent moral acts (you honk at the idiot in the parking lot who is letting everyone pull out in front of him and then atone next Sunday by fixing pancakes for the homeless). In either order, people mentally keep track of moral credits and balance them across one another.
A broader implication of the findings is that there are limits to the amount of "good behavior" that society can get people to engage in. If the government or some other authority incentivizes or mandates one type of good behavior, people will conform in that dimension but compensate by acting poorly in some other dimension.
As my Mom is fond of saying, "I guess we just can't have nice things."