A behavioral economist answers questions on why people steal while returning lost property, the cost of news making rescues, and the value of do-it-yourself labor.
Written by Dan Ariel for the Wall Street Journal
I recently lost my wallet while shopping at the mall. Once I got it back, I realized that the person who returned it had stolen all the money and returned only my driver’s license and credit card. Here’s what I don’t get: How could a person doing such a kind act also do something so immoral? —Jessie
The basic principle operating here is what psychologists call “moral licensing.” Sometimes when we do a good deed, we feel an immediate boost to our self-image. Sadly, that also makes us less concerned with the moral implications of our next actions. After all, if we are such good, moral people, don’t we deserve to act a bit selfishly?
Moral licensing operates across many areas of life. After we recycle our trash from lunch, we’re more likely to buy non-green products. After we go to the gym, we’re more likely to order a double cheeseburger. This is probably why the person who found your wallet and decided to return it felt justified in taking your cash.
A thought occurred to me during recent coverage of the rescue of the Thai soccer team trapped in a cave. It seemed that no expense was spared in bringing out the 12 boys and their coach alive. But there are plenty of ways that, for a fraction of the cost, we as a society could save and improve the lives of far more people—for example, by spending more on public health measures.
I’m not criticizing the rescue of the soccer players. But what makes us care so much about these episodes and so little about other issues? —Stanley
You are correct in your observation. We’re much more motivated to take drastic measures to help others when we see suffering on a specific human face, rather than in abstract numbers. This is what’s known as the “identifiable victim effect.”
Consider, for example, the recent stories about immigrant children separated from their parents at the border. Most of us were aware of immigration problems before, but when the harm became more individual and visible, it seemed intolerable. We should be aware of this effect and, as you say, shouldn’t necessarily let it dictate where we focus our effort and resources.
I recently decided to remodel my bathroom myself instead of hiring a contractor to do it. It took up my weekends for nine months, time that I otherwise would have spent in advancing my career. I enjoy the hands-on work, but would I have been better off focusing on my job and trying to earn more money? —Will
While it’s certainly more time-efficient to hire a contractor, and you could have used the time to further your career, it sounds like you got a lot of satisfaction out of remodeling the bathroom yourself. Several colleagues and I conducted research a few years ago on what we called the “IKEA effect.” It turns out that when we assemble something ourselves, we end up taking a lot of pride in it, and for a long time. So I wouldn’t just think about money and time. Think also about the pleasure of taking pride in your craftsmanship.