Mind Field (2017) s03e02 Episode Script

Moral Licensing

Moral psychology isn't always an easy thing to study.
First of all, just using a survey to ask people what they think is moral doesn't always reveal what they would do in real life.
An experiment that actually puts people in what feels like a real scenario may get more realistic results, but researchers must always balance the benefits of what we could learn with the safety and well-being of the people they study.
Secondly, what we learn from moral psychology experiments doesn't always make humans look good.
For example, today we're going to look at moral licensing: the theory that when you do something good you subconsciously feel you've earned a license to then do something bad.
I've been working with Dr.
Kyle Stanford, from the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine, on a way to observe moral licensing in the wild.
So I want to see moral licensing in effect.
I want to see people who have been led to believe, through their own actions, that they're good.
Use that feeling to do bad.
The thing to keep in mind, it's like people are keeping tabs, and they give themselves credit for the moral the good thing they did.
But none of that is happening consciously, right? So we shouldn't imagine that a person who's engaged in moral licensing is asking themselves in their head Right, pulling out their scorecard.
what should I be? Does it make me a good person? But it is going on, and they don't experience it.
-They don't know that it's happening.
-Right.
I think we're going to learn a lot today.
-I say we go get started.
-Let's do it.
Let's do it.
[Michael] So here's how the moral licensing test we designed is going to work.
First, we're going to take this beautiful park and, for the purposes of science, throw trash everywhere.
Next, we've hired some unsuspecting actors who think they're going to film a public service announcement about the park.
-Hey, Jake.
Hey, man.
-Hi.
-Nice to meet you.
-Nice to meet you.
Once they've arrived, it will be obvious that the trash is a problem.
We just need to clean up this little alleyway right here.
Will they do a good deed and earn some moral credit by volunteering to help pick up the trash, or not? And to make everything feel more real, we did have them film our fake PSA.
Forget the concrete and the heat.
Relax in over 16,000 square feet.
Of outdoor space that can't be beat.
Right outside your door.
Right outside your door.
Right outside your door.
After shooting the PSA, each participant will be asked to wait in a separate area for some final paperwork.
There, our confederate Cameron, who appears to be homeless, will ask them for money.
Meanwhile, Dr.
Stanford and I will be watching behind the scenes to observe how our subjects react.
So, will our participants keep their subconscious moral scorecards balanced by giving money when they didn't clean, or feeling like they don't need to give money if they did? -Hey! -Makaylo.
Makaylo, nice to meet you.
First up in our demo was Makaylo.
We used our actual Mind Field crew as the crew of the fake PSA who are overwhelmed with the task of cleaning up all the trash.
We normally sort of never ask this, but we've got, like, all this stuff that we're trying to clean up.
I'm going to grab some gloves.
I was wondering, would you help me? -I'm sorry -Let's do it.
Let's do it.
All three of us can triple-team it.
-and we can get this thing going.
-Let's do it.
Let's do it.
Yeah, this is just what we wanted to do today.
It looks like someone had a good time, though.
[Michael] All right, so picking up the trash.
How do you think that's currently sitting with our actor? He's thinking of himself as having done a good deed that he didn't need to do, that he didn't have to do.
Right? And so the moral credit is high.
[Michael] Then it was time to shoot our PSA.
[man] Take it away.
Forget the concrete and the heat.
Relax in 16,000 square feet.
[man] That was great! All right, man.
-Hey, thanks so much.
-Cool.
No problem, man.
We compensated our participants for the PSA in small bills so they would have plenty to give the homeless man, should they choose to do so.
-Here's $50.
-Thank you, thank you.
Then we asked them to wait in a nearby tent for their final paperwork.
Will Makaylo's good deed be enough moral credit for him to pass on helping the homeless guy? All right, Cameron, this is Michael.
You can go ahead.
What's up? -What's up? -Hi.
Are you with this? Yeah, I'm just waiting for someone to help me out here.
Could you help me out with like a dollar or two? Just, I can go to the vending machine? Sorry, my man, I ain't got nothing but $20 bills on me right now.
Oh, I got nothing but $20 bills.
[laughs] -You sure? -Yeah, man.
All right, well [Michael] We're going to go talk to him.
Hey, Makaylo.
-Hey.
-Thanks for waiting.
-I'm Michael.
Nice to meet you.
-No problem.
Makaylo.
-This is Kyle.
-Nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you, Makaylo.
We really appreciate your help today.
-I just saw-- Did a guy come by? -Yes.
What did he ask? -For a dollar bill.
-[Michael] Oh, for a dollar bill? Yeah.
Did you give him money? -No.
-What'd you tell him? I just told him I didn't have anything.
So I'm going to debrief you on what we're doing here today.
We're doing a psychological exploratory experiment on what's called moral licensing.
We're looking at the correlation between people who do volunteer to help pick up the trash, and how generous you are later to a homeless person who walks by.
Interesting.
Now, you just exhibited the exact pattern of moral licensing, right? In that you had already done a good deed-- So I was good for the day.
Right.
[Michael] Did we just see moral licensing in effect? Perhaps.
Let's see what our other subjects do.
Here, let me just have you hang out here.
Is there anybody that can help us clean up this? -I'm going to go look around.
-All right.
Okay, so this is Alex.
And Alex is just messing with his stuff.
[Kyle] He's either not really noticing, or pretending not to notice.
But all of that is just fine.
The question is what he then goes on to do.
[Michael] So Alex didn't help pick up trash.
Will his guilt put him at a moral deficit, and therefore motivate him to give money to the homeless man? Hey.
Can you spare some money? Maybe help me out? -You want a buck? -A buck? Yeah.
Can I give you a buck? Is that cool? [Cameron] That's more than cool, man.
I just got paid to be here.
-Really? -Yeah.
Helping to shoot a PSA, yeah.
Where do I sign up? -Thank you.
-All right, take care.
All right.
Very interesting.
I do wonder if he felt a little bit of guilt.
We got it in the opposite direction, -which was going to be the hard thing to do.
-Yeah.
I'm very happy about this.
[Michael] Next, we have Jake.
So I'm on set doing a PSA shoot.
[Michael] Hey, he's doing a vlog.
And I get here, and it appears that someone had a what could only be described as a trash party.
I mean, they just threw trash literally everywhere, all over where they want to shoot.
So I'm going to go help them pick up some of the trash.
First, I'm going to make sure that I document that I'm a helper.
I would also like to point out, though, that he has not helped.
-[Kyle] Right.
-He's gone back into the tent.
And I wonder, when it comes to moral licensing, does this play an effect? I can check the box.
Not only am I good, but the world knows I'm good.
Now, this is something we haven't seen before.
[Michael] I love this.
I love that he got credit for helping, -but didn't.
-Right.
What's interesting but hard to know is how that'll look to him, whether he'll see himself as having done a good deed, or seeing himself as kind of skated on the obligation, because he didn't really help.
Hey, do you think you could spare some money, maybe help me out? Here, man.
Here's a dollar.
-Really? -Yeah.
Go for it.
All right, you're a good man.
Thank you.
We were really curious as we were watching this all unfold, because you agreed to help, and then you recorded a video about how you were going to help, but by the time all that was over, you didn't need to help.
It was all cleaned up.
-Right.
-So we were wondering, did you feel like you had helped, or not? No.
I didn't have time to.
And you didn't feel guilty.
Like, ooh, I kind of like got out of helping.
No, I didn't feel bad about that.
I would have definitely picked up trash.
Erin's likely to be thinking that she's doing a good deed.
Yeah.
Could you maybe help me out, give me some money? I'm sorry, I don't have anything on me here.
-No? -They won't let me.
-Oh.
-Yeah.
-That was great.
-Yes, we have a couple good illustrations in both directions.
[Michael] We seemed to have witnessed moral licensing at play in several cases.
But, of course, as with any demonstration like this, our results weren't always cut-and-dry.
I'm going to go try to clean this up myself, and then Gotcha.
Yeah, yeah.
Some of the participants both didn't help clean and declined to give our homeless man money.
Could you maybe spare some change? I just want to go to the vending machine? Uh However, they did find other ways to help hiim that could qualify as a good deed.
They have snacks, maybe.
I'm going to take a pop.
[laughs] Okay.
Do you want a soda or something? Yeah, that'd be Do you maybe have a little money as well? -I don't, sorry.
But -Okay.
which one do you want? So what was going through your mind when you made the decision not to give some of the cash that we know you had to the man who was asking? You know, there's just like a whole bunch of stereotypes about homeless people.
And you don't know what you're getting into.
[Michael] And we had a couple subjects who both volunteered to clean and gave money.
Do you need any assistance? If you wouldn't mind, that'd be really helpful.
[Michael] Oh, he's offering to help.
Oh! -Do you need any help? -Oh, would you mind? -[Kyle] Oh, she just offered.
She offered.
-[Michael] She's volunteered.
These were the only two participants who did good deeds at both opportunities.
-[man] Thank you so much for the help.
-[Diana] Of course.
-Do you maybe have some spare change? -Here you go.
-Thanks a lot.
-Best of luck.
-Here you go.
Hope it helps.
-Thank you so much.
You're welcome.
[Michael] All right, let's go talk to her.
Another good, good person.
What motivated you to give the man money? I actually tend to give people money often.
I don't know if that's the best thing.
Interesting.
So two people both cleaned and donated money.
But everyone else either cleaned and didn't give, or didn't clean, but gave in some form.
What do you think about how everything went? Well, it was really interesting.
I would like to do it with many more people.
But I think we saw the phenomenon, right? We saw the thing happen.
Something we weren't expecting, actually, is sort of the gap between what people did and what they said about why they did it.
-Yeah.
-Right? And that's something-- I mean, social psychology generally has learned to be very suspicious of people's rationales or justifications for their own behavior.
But these actually fit kind of nicely.
You could see people straining to defend themselves if they didn't do a good deed that was open to them.
Right? And then a lot of people who did good deeds had the, "Well, of course, that's what anyone would do" attitude.
-Right? -[Michael] Yeah.
I believe our study successfully created the conditions for moral licensing to emerge.
It was a great first step towards taking this kind of study out of the lab and into the real world.
But, of course, many people already have a philosophy about giving to the homeless that might be stronger than the impact of a good deed they do.
So we're not done yet.
Now, here's what I want to do next, okay? We learned a lot of lessons today, and I think one of them is that when the scenarios you put people in are scenarios they may have experienced before, that can affect the results.
If someone did or did not give money to a homeless person, they can easily explain it away as, "Well, I never do," or "I always do.
" I want to find a scenario that we don't find ourselves in very often, that we haven't created a philosophy or identity about ourselves around.
For instance, allowing someone else to take the blame for something that you did.
Because that seems like a scenario where all of us would say we would never let that happen.
But if we build up significant moral license in that person, will they actually do something that none of us would ever want to admit that we would do? Are you down to plan something else? I am down indeed.
All right, let's do it.
[Michael] Kyle and I developed a different sort of test to really try and pinpoint moral licensing by putting our participants in a situation they'd likely never been in before, and thus had no preconceived assumptions about.
A test that might make people behave in a way that could surprise even themselves.
Welcome, everybody.
Thank you for coming today.
In a nutshell, what we're doing is we're going to see if we can get people to do something that almost all of us would never admit we're capable of doing: to allow a child to take the blame for a crime they committed.
And we're going to do that by using moral licensing.
Early on in the demonstration or experiment, they're going to have an opportunity to donate money.
To really up the value of their moral action, we will tell the participants that for every dollar they give of the money they've made today, 100 times that amount will be given to children's hospitals.
So if they donate just a dollar today, they'll feel like they gave $100.
We're giving them a chance there to do something morally good that will hopefully make them feel like they don't have to step up and keep this innocent child from taking the fall for their crimes later on.
They just think they're coming to test out really cool VR equipment at the YouTube Space in Los Angeles.
Our participants will think that they're here to focus-test a new kind of VR technology.
But what they don't know is that everyone else is a hired actor, including the child, Noah.
[laughs] Participants will be told that security is of the utmost concern, and not to let anyone into the room.
Just be sure not to let anybody in, because the doors you need a key card.
But while waiting, someone will knock on the door.
[knock] If they break protocol and open the door, the man they let in will steal some of the VR equipment.
[man] You guys have a good day.
Even though the participant let the thief in, Noah will volunteer that he did, and be blamed for what the participant knows they were responsible for.
-And, Noah, you let him in? -Yeah.
Yeah, I let someone in.
[Michael] Putting participants into difficult moral scenarios needs to be done carefully, so we have a psychiatrist on call.
Now with all the details in place, it's time to begin.
All right, Noah, we are starting now.
[woman] All right.
Head on in.
Go ahead and grab a seat.
Our first participant is Kimberly.
Kimberly gave $1 of her earnings from the study, which means she thinks that she's donated $100.
[woman] Just be sure that if you guys need to go to the bathroom or anything like that, be sure to let someone know.
Because no one without a key card -should be coming back in.
-Okay.
Gotcha.
All right, Noah, you can cue your mom to leave.
-[mother] Just stay there.
-[Noah] Okay.
[Michael] To get rid of any eyewitnesses, Noah's mom left the room to go get a coffee.
-[door closes] -Have you done this? -No.
I'm excited.
-No? -Oh, nice.
-Have you? -No.
-Oh.
I'm excited.
[both chuckle] [knock on door] [Michael] Oh, there's the knocking.
So our thief is trying to get in.
The question is, will Kimberly let him in? [knocking persists] Is somebody knocking? I love those suspicious eyes.
-[man] Thank you so much.
-Oh, yeah, you're welcome.
-Oh, "thank you," "you're welcome.
" -Awesome.
You guys having a good day? Yeah.
You guys have a good day.
Thank you.
All right, I think we are finally ready for you.
Okay, I'll have you do you guys know if there was anybody who wasn't supposed to be in here? Yeah, I let someone in.
Okay.
Um stay right here.
I'll be right back.
Okey-dokey.
[door closes] What happened? I don't know.
Kimberly didn't speak up.
We'll get to see the full escalation.
[woman] Yeah, I was gone for maybe, like, three minutes, and one of the sets is gone.
I mean [sighs] the amount of technology.
The protocols that are kept in there.
You just opened the door and let someone in? Yeah.
Mm-mm.
Oh, my gosh.
My heart rate's going.
I mean, I didn't know, so I think Kimberly's really nervous to say anything.
[Kyle] She hasn't decided at this point that she's going to let him take the blame.
But she's seeing how it plays out.
[Michael] To further heighten the situation, and to prolong the opportunity for Kimberly to come clean, we sent in security.
-How old are you, son? -Twelve.
You're 12? All right, just have the rest of the employees stay out of the hallway, give the officers room to come in.
Okay, we have to keep things safe, because just in case there's something else going on here.
Can you tell me what you saw? Is there something that you saw, or that you noticed that was? I literally just came in, like, five minutes ago, and there was just dudes coming in and out.
-So -Okay.
The guy that he's describing, he was coming in and out? There was like a couple guys coming in and out, so -[Noah] But there were tons of guys coming in and out.
-Yeah.
All right, I'm going to have Calvin take the kid away.
Okay, sorry, but Mom, you and the son are going to need to come with me, okay? Yeah, still have them come in.
[Michael] Kimberly was given many chances to tell the truth, but she said nothing, letting poor Noah take the blame.
[mother] Why? One little thing to follow.
[Noah] Sorry.
Can I go? Like, everybody left.
I'm not going to be here by myself.
We got to get in there.
Okay, let's go, Kyle.
-Are you Kimberly? -I am.
Yeah.
I'm gonna debrief you on what's been happening here today.
Okay? There is no VR experience.
I'm Michael Stevens, I'm the host of a psychology program.
And this is Kyle Stanford.
He works at UC, Irvine, -in Philosophy and Logic.
-Yes.
Of course.
Now, you gave a donation today.
Yeah.
How'd you feel about that? I was, like, let me help out.
When the child actor took responsibility for letting a person in, were you at all conflicted about the fact that he was taking full responsibility for everything? I was literally, like, just frozen.
I was just frozen.
And then I was kind of like, I feel so uncomfortable right now.
I, like, just kind of let him say whatever he wanted.
And I assume, like, if somebody actually took anything, they'd be like, hey, you're the one that let the guy in.
In Kimberly's case, she may have been displaying moral licensing.
Kimberly donated, and that might have given her the moral credit to then not accept blame.
[Kyle] If she's not being insincere, she's not lying -She's asking herself, like-- -and convincing herself, she's utterly typical, we all do that.
What subjects are most likely doing is confabulating in a way to defend whatever behavior they engage in, especially if they decided to let Noah take the fall.
What I love is that confabulation.
Some participants gave no donation [knock on door] and subsequently followed the order not to open the door.
[man] Guys, please.
My hands are full.
I got to get this in there.
My boss told me to.
[knocking persists] Please, guys.
This is Zeus.
He chose to donate $5, which means he feels like he's responsible for a $500 donation.
Hey, guys.
Did you was there anyone in here who didn't have one of these key cards? Yes.
Sorry, I let someone in.
Okay, I -Wait, wait, wait.
-I will be right back.
Miss, that was me.
Don't take the blame for me.
It was me.
I thought he worked here.
Okay, um just stay right here, guys.
I will be right back.
[Michael] Even though Zeus donated money, he still did what many of us would consider the right thing: he confessed.
Situations like this can be difficult.
We don't always like what we learn about ourselves.
In fact, one of the participants who donated the largest amount allowed Noah to be removed by security and asked to not be included in this episode.
Our last participant was Michael, who did not donate.
[man] Hey.
Hello.
I got a box out here, man.
I can't hello? Thank you, man.
I'm amazed that no one has asked the guy for a badge.
Right.
Was there someone in here? This guy just came in.
-He was banging on the door.
-Uh-huh.
Came in, picked something up, and then he walked out.
Okay.
-Um -I was drawing.
did he have a badge? -I don't know.
-I let him in, so I let him in.
I don't know what happened.
He was banging on the door Michael initially confessed, his behavior in line with moral licensing.
But Noah spoke up, giving Michael an out.
Will Michael stick to the truth? -Oh, here we go.
-Oh, okay.
He let the guy in.
Son, can you tell me what happened? Yeah, a guy was knocking on the door and he said, "Can I please come in?" Something about his boss.
And then [security guard] You said Guy was banging on the door, said "his boss" Opened the door for him.
He comes in here he takes something, and then he walks out.
[security guard] And, Noah, you let him in? [Noah] Yeah.
[security guard] Okay, you opened the door and let him in.
Okay.
What must be racing through Michael's head right now? -Why is this kid -It's very hard to imagine.
This is a very strange situation -[Michael] Obviously.
-a regular person to be in.
I think you're just thinking, "Why is this kid saying he did it?" [Kyle] Trying to figure it out.
Yeah.
I think, at this point, you and your mom are going to need to come with me, because we're going to need to talk to the police, because he opened the door, and he was not supposed to open the door, -and he opened up the door.
-If you'd just listen.
I tell you, just listen.
-I promise we're right-- -Mom, come with me.
Promise.
Just keep your hands to yourself and do what I ask you to do.
God! [Michael] We should go in.
Right.
What made it difficult to come forward and admit that you were the one who opened the door? I felt uncomfortable that something was stolen, one.
Two, that this kid was going to take the blame.
I mean, I needed to step up and be accountable if I opened the door.
But it was just didn't quite know what was going on in that scenario there.
[Michael] Michael's behavior shows us just how complicated moral reasoning is.
That even when we want to do the right thing, it doesn't take much for us to step back and abandon that sense of morality if, and when, we are given an out.
So, Kyle.
I was pretty surprised by how far so many people were willing to let the wrong blame game go.
Viewers may well be sitting there judging the people who didn't jump up to take responsibility.
But I think the kind of evidence we're gathering shows that it's much more possible than you think to get regular people to do things that they immediately feel regretful about.
Another kind of lesson I think we get here is to remind ourselves how sensitive all of us are to features of the situation, even if we feel in our heart of hearts -like there's no way we could ever have wound up doing it.
-Yeah.
That is probably the number-one lesson, and I'm so grateful to the participants we had here today who helped us illustrate that, because without the illustrations, it's just a word in a textbook.
Right.
We are all capable of doing things we'd never expect ourselves to do.
And the choices that you make can have less to do with how good or bad you are as a person, and more to do with how you've acted recently.
Now, that might sound unfortunate, but we are imperfect creatures.
And that's nothing to be ashamed of, because we are also curious.
And the more we learn about why and how we make the moral choices that we do, the better we'll be able to tackle difficult questions in the future.
And, as always, thanks for watching.