Moral licensing; policy change

A water conservation campaign in Boston gave residents weekly feedback on water use. Researchers, in comparing those water users with a control group, found that residents with the water conservation tips reduced their water use. Yay!!! Now the not-so-good part: this group of water conservers simultaneously increased their energy use.

Moral licensing was at work. That is when “people can call to mind previous instances of their own socially desirable or morally laudable behaviors,’ making them ‘more comfortable taking actions that could be seen as socially undesirable or morally questionable.” (p. 162). Efforts to implement direct change can be surprisingly counterproductive. Other approaches can be less prone to those reversals. For example, if a state adopts more efficient plumbing standards, water use by those devices is likely to be permanently reduced. If a fee is put on every thousand gallons of water, the price signal tends also to have a durable effect.

Our individual human minds strongly resist change. It could be wiser to focus more on changing policy and less on individual behavior. Like yesterday’s Clean Water Rally at the state Capitol was to influence the policy for implementing Amendment 1. That is a great way to change policy for many years to come.


Moral licensing; policy change — 4 Comments

  1. “It could be wiser to focus more on changing policy and less on individual behavior.” Amen to that, Tom! That is the message I always try to drive home when I teach enviro politics, to counteract the hegemonic focus in our society on individual consumption decisions as the key to “saving the planet.” What we do as CITIZENS of a polity is so much more important than what we do as individual consumers.

    • Very glad to hear that you agree. About all I would add is that the overemphasis on “individual behavior” goes beyond what we do as “individual consumers.” There are many, many lists of “50 Tips” that often should be changed to “The Best Way to Support Collective Action.”

  2. Could agree more with you Katrina and Tom! I like to think of it as lifestyle activism vs. policy change, and I would say collective action towards policy change is where we really start to get somewhere.