Can piety turn you into a jerk? Religious and secular versions

I’ve had numerous discussions with people (ranging from ‘anticlerical Catholics’ to secular Israeli Jews) who complain about religious very observant people in their own communities being ‘hypocrites’ or ‘holier than thou’: That is, they (are perceived to) believe that their stringency (or even one-upmanship) in some areas of ritual observance gives them an ‘indulgence’ for less than exemplary behavior in other aspects of their daily lives.

Of course I know that this is an unfair stereotype: I am too familiar with religious people who are painstakingly conscientious in their interactions with others. Yet I am equally familiar with people that fit the stereotype to a T. It would be almost a miracle if there weren’t any — after all, we’re talking about humans here.

Now here are two studies that describe secularized versions of this behavior:

Can organic produce and natural shampoo turn you into a heartless jerk? (Link to original research paper.)

Study: Hybrid Owners Drive More, Get More Tickets [hat tip: JCM]

Some would of course argue “same difference: environmentalism is itself a religion”. And for the hybrid owners, alternative explanations can be invoked — not the least of which is ‘chicken or egg’. (For somebody who has to drive a lot in an urban setting, hybrids are economically attractive — and more miles driven, ceteris paribus/all else being equal, should translate into more tickets.)

Yet I can name other examples. Anybody who’s ever dwelled in academic or literary circles will nod in recognition: some people think their activism on behalf of ‘social justice’ buys them socio-economic indulgences.

Let’s go back to the first study:

Newer work has focused on morality more broadly. Earlier this year, researchers at Northwestern reported that subjects who wrote self-flattering stories later pledged to give less money to charity than those who wrote stories that were self-critical or about someone else. In another recent study, participants who recalled their own righteous deeds were less inclined to donate blood, volunteer, or engage in other “prosocial” acts. They were also more likely to cheat on a math assignment.

Why might this happen? According to Monin, now a professor at Stanford, there are two theories. One is that when we’ve established our rectitude, we interpret ensuing behavior in a different light: I just proved I’m a good person, so what I’m doing now must be okay. This reasoning, of course, works best in ambiguous situations, not with egregious sins. For example, in Monin’s experiments, it seems plausible that after participants have displayed a lack of prejudice, they see their next judgment call as based on sound analysis. (Indeed, it’s possible that the subjects are not expressing prejudice but simply feel liberated from the pressure to be politically correct.)

Another, potentially overlapping theory holds that we have a kind of subconscious moral accounting system. We like to think of ourselves as good guys, but sainthood has costs. So when we have done our mitzvah for the day, we cut ourselves some slack. In this model, “moral credits” are a kind of currency we accrue and spend.

The notion that being good leads us to be bad doesn’t sound so far-fetched. It’s reminiscent of the idea that after a day of salads and nonfat yogurt, you can indulge in a slice of cheesecake. Yet the opposite hypothesis also rings true. Don’t we all get a “warm glow” from doing good, which incentivizes us to do even more good? Also, if you think of yourself as generous or honest or environmentally responsible (and others see you that way too), it seems that you’d be motivated to affirm that image. Indeed, several studies have indicated that when people are praised for agreeing to a request, they are more likely to consent to a follow-up favor.

In fact, The Talmud does teach that “one mitzvah leads to another, and one transgression leads to another” (Pirket Avot 4:2).

Good behavior, then, sometimes appears to beget more good behavior, while at other times it triggers moral slackening. Further research may determine how and when these different mechanisms apply.


3 thoughts on “Can piety turn you into a jerk? Religious and secular versions

  1. I encountered a real-life incident illustrating this principle just the other day.

    On [unnamed university campus] a company had rented a room for an hour in a building to give a promotional presentation of its product, which they thought would be of interest to students. To lure people in, they were giving away free promotional materials and samples.

    Well, a couple of faculty members from one of the “social justice” departments found out about it and came over and started screaming at the girls manning the freebies table. “What are you doing here? You represent a corporation! You represent a capitalist enterprise! Get off our campus! You have no right to be here!”

    “But the company rented the room and paid for it.”

    “You are a corrupting influence! Shame! Shame! Shame!” etc.

    It was quite a spectacle.

    It was painfully obvious that the “social justice” professors felt they had accrued an infinitely large spiritual bank account of good intentions, so they thereby felt they had the right to act like total assholes to complete strangers. After screaming at the girls, who after all were just hired because they were cute and were not evil corporate taskmasters, the social justice crew walked away (and to me this was the key detail) with SMILES on their faces, like they had just done a good deed.

    You see stuff like this all the time in lefty land. It accounts for the mysterious and unnerving omnipresent smug smile of moonbats’ faces. They ALL feel they are going to social justice heaven, hence they can act like barbarians on earth because they’re already pre-identified as the “good guys.”

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