When Do Good Deeds Lead to More Good Deeds?

For most people, it will make intuitive sense to think that doing something “good” (be it helping others out, reducing energy consumption, buying fair trade) may lead to further good deeds. Classic theories in motivational and personality psychology would support that intuition (see cognitive dissonance theory, or self perception theory).

On the other hand, most people would also recognize that, after taking the bicycle to the shops and leaving the car at home, this act of “good citizenship” may make them feel less guilty about buying those shiny sneakers, even though its producer is known to exploit its laborers. After all, they have made their contribution to society earlier, and they earned their right to indulge. We cannot be perfect all the time, can we?

So, when do good deeds produce more good deeds, and when do they do the opposite? This is a fascinating question, and currently there are very few answers available. We know from previous research that the way we interpret that first good deed is one important element. Most people like to think of themselves as good and decent individuals. Buying fair trade may be interpreted as a signal of someone’s commitment to contributing to a more just society. In that case, they are more likely to live up to that commitment when they face a new dilemma. On the other hand, they may interpret that purchase as “having done their share.” In that case, they may feel it is acceptable to be less noble later on.

In our research, we found another relevant factor. There are at least two ways to decide on “what is the right thing to do.” One is to take into account the consequences of our behavior. What would benefit others more? Alternatively, we can decide what is ethical by evaluating whether a behavior is in line with our ethical principles or values, independent of its consequences. For example, not buying those sneakers will not make the company stop producing them. Still, it may feel wrong to get them. We found that when people think in terms of principles and values, good deeds tend to produce more good deeds. When they think in terms of the consequences of behavior, they tend to balance good and bad deeds over time.

For now, these findings throw up more new questions than provide answers. For example, what makes people think in terms of consequences, or in terms of principles? Despite the fact that these are issues people have wondered about for centuries, we are only scratching the surface in answering them.

Gert Cornelissen is a professor in the department of economics and business at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain.

Category: Q&A


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