Here’s a brief excerpt from a Globe and Mail article titled, ‘Green consumers more likely to steal and lie’:

“Pop quiz: You need $20 for lunch and can only ask one person for a loan.
Do you ask a) the eco-conscious vegetarian who only buys green cleaning products, or b) the Hummer-driving meathead who says Al Gore is overrated.
If you choose person A – assuming she cares as much for fellow human beings as she does for the planet – you could end up hungry.
Green consumers are more likely to steal, lie and hoard their money compared with those who are exposed to environmentally friendly products but don’t buy them, according a new study by University of Toronto researchers to be published in the journal Psychological Science.”

This paragraph (along with the title, lede, and, well, the rest of the article in its entirety) would lead you to believe that there’s something about the ecologically-minded that make them deviant.

But take a look at the paper they’re talking about in the article, in press at Psych Science and available on Nina Mazer’s website (link).

In fact, the participants in the experiment weren’t split into Prius and Humvee drivers.  Instead, they were randomly assigned to shop at a rigged store:  Some went to a store where the lion’s share of products were ‘green’, while others shopped at a store whose selection was gerrymandered to include very few green products.  They then were given $25 to shop for items (and were not allowed to pick more than one of the same item).  This gave participants the illusion of choice — but in reality, they were being steered to buy green or conventional products.

Once the people who were led to feel that they had made a socially-conscious choice were let loose in other tasks, they cheated and lied:  They divvied up money inequitably and claimed credit for wrong answers on a task.  This is another twist on the licensing effect.

So what’s wrong with the headline and the Globe article?  The folks who bought green products cheated and lied!

The problem, of course, is that it’s not ‘green consumers’ who cheat and lie.  Green consumers will be more likely to feel licensed to be dishonest after buying green products.  But they’re no more or less likely to lie or cheat than anyone else.   The same effect is found anytime that people are made to feel good about themselves.  For instance, I have no doubt that you could elicit the same effect after getting conservatives to volunteer to attend an anti-Kyoto protest.

So the real lesson, returning to the Globe and Mail’s question, isn’t that you should hit up the Humvee driver for lunch money.  It’s that you really ought to avoid asking a favour of anyone too chuffed with their own sense of morality.  In other words, it’s not just disposition – it’s situation.

So what can we do about this?  We certainly don’t want to discourage people from ‘greening’ their consumption, but at the same time, we’d rather avoid giving people the sense that they’re entitled to a little deception and dishonesty because of their electric car or organic banana.

Thankfully, there are some instances where people get into a pattern of doing good on a regular basis, rather than acting as ‘moral thermometers’, alternating between being nice and being lousy.  For instance, doing nice things in video games leads us to do nice things in real life.  People who can be cajoled into voting once will then get into a habit of voting in the future. Forgiving someone can lead us to give more to charity.  The list goes on.  Aristotle wasn’t wrong:  In some cases, virtuous living seems to be a matter of getting into a habit.

So why do we become habitual do-gooders in some situations, but mercurially alternate between prosociality and antisociality in other cases?   How could these findings be reconciled?

Nina Mazar, & Chen-Bo Zhong (2009). Do Green Products Make Us Better People? Psychological Science.  (Link)