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Pleasures of skill and moral conduct

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  • Falk, Armin
  • Szech, Nora

Abstract

As was recognized by Bentham, skillfulness is an important source of pleasure. Humans like achievement and to excel in tasks relevant to them. This paper provides controlled experimental evidence that striving for pleasures of skill can have negative moral consequences and causally reduce moral values. In the study, subjects perform an IQ-test. They know that each correctly solved question not only increases test performance but also the likelihood of moral transgression. In terms of self-image, this creates a trade-off between signaling excellence and immoral disposition. We contrast performance in the IQ-test to test scores in an otherwise identical test, which is, however, framed as a simple questionnaire with arguably lower self-relevance. We find that subjects perform significantly better in the IQ-test condition, and thus become more willing to support morally problematic consequences. Willingness to reduce test performance in order to behave more morally is significantly less pronounced in the IQ versus the more neutral context. The findings provide controlled and causal evidence that the desire to succeed in a challenging, self-relevant task has the potential to seduce subjects into immoral behaviors and to significantly decrease values attached to moral outcomes.

Suggested Citation

  • Falk, Armin & Szech, Nora, 2016. "Pleasures of skill and moral conduct," Discussion Papers, Research Unit: Economics of Change SP II 2016-301, WZB Berlin Social Science Center.
  • Handle: RePEc:zbw:wzbeoc:spii2016301
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Kreuchauff, Florian & Korzinov, Vladimir, 2015. "A patent search strategy based on machine learning for the emerging field of service robotics," Working Paper Series in Economics 71, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Department of Economics and Business Engineering.
    2. Aaron C. Ahuvia, 2005. "Beyond the Extended Self: Loved Objects and Consumers' Identity Narratives," Journal of Consumer Research, Oxford University Press, vol. 32(1), pages 171-184, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Jannis Engel & Nora Szech, 2017. "A Little Good is Good Enough: Ethical Consumption, Cheap Excuses, and Moral Self-Licensing," Working Papers 2017-025, Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Working Group.
    2. repec:eee:ecoedu:v:64:y:2018:i:c:p:313-342 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Jannis Engel & Nora Szech, 2017. "A Little Good is Good Enough: Ethical Consumption, Cheap Excuses, and Moral Self-Licensing," CESifo Working Paper Series 6434, CESifo Group Munich.
    4. Damgaard, Mette Trier & Nielsen, Helena Skyt, 2018. "Nudging in education," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 64(C), pages 313-342.
    5. Engel, Jannis & Szech, Nora, 2017. "A little good is good enough: Ethical consumption, cheap excuses, and moral self-licensing," Working Paper Series in Economics 102, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Department of Economics and Business Engineering.
    6. Engel, Jannis & Szech, Nora, 2017. "A little good is good enough: Ethical consumption, cheap excuses, and moral self-licensing," Discussion Papers, Research Unit: Economics of Change SP II 2017-301, WZB Berlin Social Science Center.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • C91 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Individual Behavior
    • D02 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Institutions: Design, Formation, Operations, and Impact
    • D62 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Externalities

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