ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2013, Vol. 45 ›› Issue (6): 672-679.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2013.00672

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The Effects of Moral Self-Regulation on Prosocial Behavior and Rule Infraction

LI Gu;ZHOU Hui;DING Ruyi   

  1. (1 Department of Psychology, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou 510275, China) (2 Division of Family Studies and Human Development, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA)
  • Received:2012-07-16 Published:2013-06-25 Online:2013-06-25
  • Contact: ZHOU Hui

Abstract: Moral self-regulation, the dynamic process through which an individual’s moral behavior history influences subsequent moral action, includes a negative-feedback mechanism. When people recall their own moral (immoral) behavior, moral self-perception will deviate from the ideal moral self-image, motivating them to engage in decreased (increased) moral action or increased (decreased) immoral action to compensate their bolstered (threatened) moral self-perception, and thereby activating a moral licensing (cleansing) effect. Whereas moral licensing and cleansing have been frequently reported in studies on prosocial behavior, less is so in rule infraction (e.g., cheating). In the current study, the authors designed two experiments to study the effects of moral self-regulation on prosocial behavior and rule infraction. We predicted that after moral (immoral) priming, participants would demonstrate less (more) charitable giving and more (less) cheating. Moreover, because people are more motivated to avoid harms than to approach benefits, the moral self-regulation process may be asymmetric in terms of prescriptive morality (what we should do) versus proscriptive morality (what we should not do). Specifically, we hypothesized that moral licensing would be more readily observed in charitable giving than in cheating; in contrast, we expected the reverse in moral cleansing. In Study 1, 155 undergraduate students were randomly assigned into positive-traits, negative-traits, or neutral-words condition. In each condition, participants were asked to copy a list of positive or negative moral traits, or inanimate objects; they were also instructed to recall past self-experience relevant to the keywords that they had copied. After the priming task, participants were invited to make a hypothetical donation. A one-way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was conducted to examine the influence of moral priming on the amount of money that participants intended to donate. In Study 2, 96 undergraduate students’ moral self-perception was manipulated using the same method as that in Study 1. Then, participants’ cheating behavior was observed. A 3×2 contingency table and a one-way ANCOVA were conducted to explore the effects of moral priming on the occurrence rates and severity of cheating among the three conditions, respectively. Results indicated that participants in the positive-traits condition were more willing to donate higher amount of money than those in the negative-traits and neutral-words conditions (Study 1). Moreover, participants in both experimental conditions were less likely to engage in cheating than those in the control condition, and their cheating behavior was less severe (Study 2). Taken together, the current study partially confirmed the moral cleansing effect in the proscriptive, but not the prescriptive morality system. However, the opposite of moral licensing effect was observed in both conditions. In conclusion, the motivational mechanism of moral action could be far more complex than previously suggested. For one thing, the self-regulation process could be different in prescriptive versus proscriptive morality. For another, people’s moral action may be influenced by both moral self-regulation (a compensatory process) as well as moral identity (a consistent process). To better understand and predict moral actions, future research should investigate both processes in the contexts of proscriptive and prescriptive moralities.

Key words: moral self-regulation, moral self-perception, moral cleansing effect, moral licensing effect