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Experimental evidence of moral cleansing in the interpersonal and environmental domains

Valeria Fanghella and John Thøgersen

Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), 2022, vol. 97, issue C

Abstract: This study investigates moral cleansing triggered by different types of immoral behaviors. We employ an incentivized online experiment (N = 532) where participants are randomly assigned to recall one of three situations in their past: a time they behaved immorally in the interpersonal domain, a time they behaved immorally in the environmental domain, or a neutral event. Participants can then engage in an act of moral cleansing that is either costly (donating part of the participation bonus) or costless (expressing an intention to sign a petition), and choose the beneficiary of the prosocial behavior. Sentiment analysis of the content of the recalls confirms that recalling an immoral behavior, independently of the domain, leads to more negative sentiment than recalling a neutral event. This effect is particularly strong when recalling an immoral behavior in the interpersonal domain. Recalling immoral behaviors in the interpersonal domain influenced the relative composition of donation versus petition behavior, but not the overall amount of prosocial behavior. In particular, it increases the probability of engaging in costly moral cleansing and reduces engagement in costless moral cleansing. However, when the immoral behavior is in the environmental domain, participants do not display even costless moral cleansing. Finally, we observe a preference for compensating in the same broad domain as the immoral behavior. Our results extend the understanding of moral cleansing and suggest some policy implications, especially advising against counting on the ability of pro-environmental morality to guide behavior.

Keywords: Moral cleansing; Cognitive dissonance; Environment; Spillover; Online experiment; Sentiment analysis (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: C90 D01 D64 Q50 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2022
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DOI: 10.1016/j.socec.2022.101838

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Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics) is currently edited by Pablo Brañas Garza

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