Going Green Can Make You Mean

The presence of green goods makes people kinder, but purchasing them gives people license to behave badly.

March 16, 2010

For those of us dogged by a sense that our annoyance with our gone-green friends is more than our own environmental shame, we finally have proof. While exposure to eco-friendly products encourages people to be kinder, a new study finds, buying green goods gives people an excuse to behave badly.

Buying green products is often seen as the right thing—or at least a good thing—to do. People see green consumers as more altruistic, ethical, and cooperative than normal consumers, according to the study, published March 15 in Psychological Science. And when a product gets tied up with a certain social value, as green goods are with morality, that product can change behavior.

Reminding people of a certain value—priming, as psychologists call it—can boost the impact of that value on how people behave. Apple is known for its creative technology and design, for instance, and previous research has shown that exposure to an Apple logo can boost creativity.

The same thing happens with green products and morality. Some people in the study just looked at green products (ostensibly to rate their aesthetics), while others did the same with normal products. Afterwards, each person played a round of the dictator game, in which they were given $6 to split between themselves and a partner however they chose. (The dictator game is a common lab measure of altruism. There’s no real incentive to share with your partner, so the more money you give away, the more altruistic you’re presumed to be.) The people who’d just been exposed to green goods gave their partners 33% more money, on average, than their counterparts did.

But another group of people in the study actually bought the products, and they showed the opposite effect.  People who had just purchased green goods gave their partners 36% less money than those who’d bought regular goods.

A second experiment found that people who purchased a green product were also more likely to cheat and steal. When doing a simple perceptual task, the green consumers were more likely to misreport what they saw in order to earn more money, and they stole seven times as much when paying themselves from a cash-filled envelope. (To put this in perspective, they stole 56 cents Canadian rather than eight cents, but proportionally, it’s a significant difference.)

This sort of bad behavior following a good deed is an example of what’s called the licensing effect. Once we’ve done something we think is good, earlier studies have shown, we feel like we have some moral wiggle room. After disagreeing with a sexist remark, for instance, people are more likely to chose a man over a woman for a stereotypically male job. The same thing happens with buying green products. After making the morally laudable choice of helping the environment, people feel more free to lie, steal, and be selfish.

So the next time you walk by the eco-friendly dish soap to pick a cheaper bottle at the end of the aisle, don’t compare yourself to your green friends quite so harshly. Walking past green products is worse for the earth, but at least it might encourage you to do some good.

About the Author

Valerie Ross

Valerie Ross studied cognitive neuroscience and creative writing at Stanford University. While it was her fascination with understanding and explaining the mind and brain that first got her interested in science writing, Valerie has now written about everything from the neuroscience of memory to drug-resistant bacteria to general relativity. She has interned with Scientific American Mind, Discover, and Popular Mechanics.


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