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Moral Cleansing and Moral Licenses: experimental evidence


  • Pablo Brañas-Garza

    (Universidad de Granada, Spain)

  • Marisa Bucheli

    (Universidad de la República, Uruguay)

  • María Paz Espinosa

    (Universidad del País Vasco, BRIDGE, Spain)

  • Teresa García-Muñoz

    (Universidad de Granada, Spain)


Research on moral cleansing and moral self-licensing has introduced dynamic considerations in the theory of moral behavior. Past bad actions trigger negative feelings that make people more likely to engage in future moral behavior to offset them. Symmetrically, past good deeds favor a positive self-perception that creates licensing effects, leading people to engage in behavior that is less likely to be moral. In short, a deviation from a “normal state of being” is balanced with a subsequent action that compensates the prior behavior. We model the decision of an individual trying to reach the optimal level of moral self-worth over time and show that under certain conditions the optimal sequence of actions follows a regular pattern which combines good and bad actions. We conduct an economic experiment where subjects play a sequence of giving decisions (dictator games) to explore this phenomenon. We find that donation in the previous period affects present decisions and the sign is negative: participants’ behavior in every round is negatively correlated to what they did in the past. Hence donations over time seem to be the result of a regular pattern of self-regulation: moral licensing (being selfish after altruist) and cleansing (altruistic after selfish).

Suggested Citation

  • Pablo Brañas-Garza & Marisa Bucheli & María Paz Espinosa & Teresa García-Muñoz, 2011. "Moral Cleansing and Moral Licenses: experimental evidence," Working Papers 11-16, Chapman University, Economic Science Institute.
  • Handle: RePEc:chu:wpaper:11-16

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. John A. List, 2007. "On the Interpretation of Giving in Dictator Games," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 115, pages 482-493.
    2. Fernando Aguiar & Pablo Branas-Garza & Maria Paz Espinosa & Luis Miller, 2010. "Personal identity: a theoretical and experimental analysis," Journal of Economic Methodology, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 17(3), pages 261-275.
    3. Forsythe Robert & Horowitz Joel L. & Savin N. E. & Sefton Martin, 1994. "Fairness in Simple Bargaining Experiments," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 6(3), pages 347-369, May.
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    5. Pierpaolo Battigalli & Martin Dufwenberg, 2007. "Guilt in Games," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 97(2), pages 170-176, May.
    6. Windmeijer, Frank, 2005. "A finite sample correction for the variance of linear efficient two-step GMM estimators," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 126(1), pages 25-51, May.
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    1. What's Right?
      by (Mungowitz) in Kids Prefer Cheese on 2013-08-18 13:00:00


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    16. Thunström, Linda & Cherry, Todd L. & McEvoy, David M. & Shogren, Jason F., 2016. "Endogenous context in a dictator game," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 65(C), pages 117-120.
    17. Sophie Clot & Fano Andriamahefazafy & Gilles Grolleau & Lisette Ibanez & Philippe Méral, 2014. "Payments for Ecosystem Services: Can we kill two birds with one stone? Insights from a Natural Field Experiment in Madagascar," Working Papers 14-01, LAMETA, Universtiy of Montpellier, revised Jan 2014.
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