Ask Ariely: On Missing Morality, Caring Critiques, and Remodeling Resources

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I recently lost my wallet while shopping at the mall. Within moments, I heard an announcement from the information desk calling me to pick it up. Relief! But once I got it back, I realized that the person who returned it had stolen all the money and returned only my driver’s license and credit card. Here’s what I don’t get: How could a person doing such a kind act also do something so immoral?

—Jessie 

The basic principle operating here is what psychologists call “moral licensing.” Sometimes when we do a good deed, such as returning someone’s wallet, we feel an immediate boost to our self-image: We just proved to ourselves that we are good people. Sadly, that also makes us less concerned with the moral implications of our next actions. After all, if we are such good, moral people, don’t we deserve to act a bit selfishly?

Moral licensing operates across many areas of life. After we recycle our trash from lunch, we’re more likely to buy non-green products. After we go to the gym, we’re more likely to order a double cheeseburger. This is probably why the person who found your wallet and decided to return it felt justified taking your cash.

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Dear Dan,

A thought occurred to me during recent coverage of the rescue of the Thai soccer team trapped in a cave. It seemed that no expense was spared in bringing out the 12 boys and their coach alive. The same urgency in saving lives, regardless of the cost, occurred during the rescue of the Chilean miners in 2010.

But there are plenty of ways that, for a fraction of the cost, we as a society could save and improve the lives of far more people—for example, by spending more on public health measures. I’m not criticizing the rescue of the soccer players or miners—both incidents were causes for celebration, examples of the triumph of human ingenuity and endurance against the forces of nature. But what makes us care so much about these episodes and so little about other issues?

—Stanley 

You are correct in your observation. We’re much more motivated to take drastic measures to help others when we see suffering on a specific human face, rather than in abstract numbers. This is what’s known as the “identifiable victim effect.” Think of moments when people have been galvanized around major issues. They often come right after a vivid story about a particular person or a harrowing image made the news.

Consider, for example, the recent stories about immigrant children separated from their parents at the border, which has made the issue of immigration more urgent across the political spectrum. Most of us were aware of immigration problems before, but when the harm became more individual and visible, it seemed intolerable. We should be aware of this effect and, as you say, shouldn’t necessarily let it dictate where we focus our effort and resources.

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Dear Dan,

I recently decided to remodel my bathroom myself instead of hiring a contractor to do it, which would have cost $65,000. I did it myself for $25,000 in materials and some hired help. It took up my weekends for nine months, time that I otherwise would have spent in advancing my career. I enjoy the hands-on work, but would I have been better off focusing on my job and trying to earn more money? Was the bathroom worth it?

—Will 

While it’s certainly more time-efficient to hire a contractor, and you could have used the time to further your career, it sounds like you got a lot of satisfaction out of remodeling the bathroom yourself. Several colleagues and I conducted research a few year ago on what we called the “Ikea effect.” It turns out that when we assemble something ourselves, we end up taking a lot of pride in it, and for a long time. So I wouldn’t just think about money and time. Think also about the pleasure of inviting friends to your home, showing them your bathroom and taking pride in your craftsmanship.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.