Endless Curiosity

November 9, 2009

The Licensing Effect and Climate Change

Filed under: Climate Change, Psychology — Alec @ 6:49 am

Have you ever heard of the Licensing Affect? Probably not, but here’s how a newspaper article describes it:

Researchers have found that, after doing something ethically sound, people are more – not less – likely to do something immoral, or even illegal.

The article is based on a 2006 study which shows that:

Most choices in the real world follow other choices or judgments. The authors show that a prior choice, which activates and boosts a positive self-concept, subsequently licenses the choice of a more self-indulgent option.

As an aside, the licensing effect is somewhat similar to Vicarious Goal Fulfillment, which says that when a virtuous choice is available, your goal may feel fulfilled even when you don’t make that choice. For example, researchers found that when students selected from a fast-food menu, “the French fries, widely perceived as the least healthy option, were three times as popular with students selecting from the menu that had the salad as they were with the other group.”

So what does the Licensing Effect have to do with climate change? Well, we think that by doing things like recycling, buying from the Farmers’ Market, changing our light bulbs, or installing a reduced-flow shower-head, we are doing our part to mitigate climate change. Having done our part, we then believe we have a license to fly to Asia for a vacation. As George Monbiot puts it in his article We Cannot Change the World by Changing our Buying Habits:

A couple of years ago a friend showed me a cutting from a local newspaper: it reported that a couple had earned so many vouchers from recycling at Tesco [a UK supermarket chain] that they were able to fly to the Caribbean for a holiday. The greenhouse gases caused by these flights outweigh any likely savings from recycling hundreds or thousands of times over, but the small actions allow people to overlook the big ones and still believe that they are environmentally responsible.

I’ve always believed that political action is the only way to combat climate change, that the problem is simply too big to address by small individual actions. Friends usually counter with the argument that when the people lead, the politicians will follow. Monbiot shows that when the people lead, even they don’t usually follow.

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