Claim: Environmentalists are more likely to cheat and steal

TheNZThrower

Active Member
According to this video:

A study has found that environmentally conscious consumers are more likely to engage in theft and dishonest behaviour. He says:
They've actually done studies on this and it turns out that people who consider themselves more environmentally conscious are more likely to cheat are more likely to steal are more likely to do other morally depraved behaviours because they believe that their morality on the climate compensates and gives them licence to do those behaviours. They literally believe that the fact that they do more greenstuff makes them better than you… and then that gives them licence to do terrible things that we would all consider unethical in our society. so if you hear somebody virtue signalling about how they buy only environmentally sustainable products then watch your wallet because that person is significantly more likely to rob you and think that they are entitled to rob you.
It cites this article from The Guardian, which summarises the findings of this 2010 study by psychologists Mazar and Zhong.

Mazar and Zhong were studying the effects of moral licensing in regards to ethical decisions pertaining to the environment. Moral licensing is the effect where when people do something that causes moral cognitive dissonance, they have a greater incentive to engage in behaviour that soothes the dissonance in favour of their moral image (e.g. engaging in altruistic acts) to prove that they aren’t immoral. Consequently, people who engage in behaviours that soothe their moral image subsequently lack that incentive as they’ve already proven their morality, and thus are less likely to be charitable and even more likely to engage in transgressive behaviour. Per Behavioural Economics:
Also known as ‘self-licensing’ or ‘moral licensing’, the licensing effect is evident when people allow themselves to do something bad (e.g. immoral) after doing something good (e.g. moral) first (Merritt et al., 2010).
So what Mazar and Zhong actually did was not study people who consider themselves more environmentally conscious. Rather, they randomly assigned a random sample of experiment volunteers to purchase from a store stocked with either green or conventional products, and then asked them to perform several tests to gauge their subsequent ethical behaviour:
One hundred fifty-six students (95 female) from the University of Toronto volunteered for an hour-long experiment in exchange for class credit. Participants were randomly assigned to one condition of a 2 (store: conventional vs. green) × 2 (action: mere exposure vs. purchase) between-participants design...

Ninety undergraduate students (56 female) from the University of Toronto volunteered for this experiment in exchange for five Canadian Dollars. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions (store: conventional vs. green). Upon arrival they were seated at desks equipped with a computer and one envelope containing $5 in different denominations. Participants were informed that they were going to engage in a number of unrelated tasks.
So they were studying how does moral licensing affect your average Joe or Jane in relation to environmental ethics, rather than studying the behaviours of a non-random sample of environmentalists. So at best AJW can claim that if your average Joe or Jane thinks that it's ok to steal or be dishonest after engaging in a bit of green consumerism, then it must follow that environmentalists who regularly and actively buy green when they do need to consume must also engage in such behaviour since if this phenomena applies to your average person, and if average people think it is noble to be considerate of the environment, then it must also apply to dedicated environmentalists.

However, this is logically fallacious, or specifically a fallacy of division. It assumes a phenomenon that applies to the general population must apply to a subset of it that is particularly environmentally conscious, which is not logically coherent. If AJW was right, then we would have to conclude that people who dedicated their time to community service by cleaning up trash must hate homeless people, as the following experiment from Vsauce demonstrates:
 
It cites this article from The Guardian, which summarises the findings
Article:
This footnote was added on 31 March 2010: The study findings above, and the methods used, are challenged by researchers associated with the social psychology department at the London School of Economics, the Institute of Ecological Economy Research in Berlin, and the Institute for Perspective Technological Studies in Seville. Their analysis can be found here: lrcg.co.uk


Article:
In our opinion, the specific shortcomings of the research that may have contributed to its misunderstanding are as follows:

The authors used a randomised student sample and did not control for existing green consumption or replicate their study on a sample of green consumers. Using actual green consumers would most likely have produced different effects. In addition, some of the statistical findings on the interaction of priming and licensing effects, as well as other key variables, were only marginally significant. It should have been discussed that a significant effect is not necessarily meaningful and that the same experiment with people who normally consume green could have had a different outcome.

In their experiment the authors forced their participants to consume green. This may have produced cognitive dissonance and moral compensation by participants in other domains (so called contrast effects - here part of ‘licensing’). Hence, the support of 'psychological licensing' by green consumers is not necessarily as clear-cut as it is made out to be in the article. Although the authors do acknowledge interactions between the variables in their research [‘By explicitly contrasting mere exposure with purchasing, we explored the complex interaction between two possible processes (priming and licensing). Our findings suggest that not all exposures have the same priming effect and that other processes (i.e. licensing) can negate or even replace the priming effect'], the authors fail to make other possible explanations for their findings explicit.

Ethical behaviour and green consumption are complex social and dynamic processes embedded in a particular cultural context. In fact, they are likely to be the outcome of a number of processes involving a set of key values held by the consumer, as well as other social variables influencing peoples behaviour over time. In our opinion, academic research that picks up themes from 'the real world' should reflect critically on research implications, especially by discussing the generalisability of the effects measured under laboratory conditions. Unfortunately, this particular research is not sufficiently critical of its own methods or interpretation; it does not reflect on the limitations of the research caused by its methodology.

In our view, the research only demonstrates what happens if people are forced to consume green in a laboratory experiment. Mere exposure to green products alone is unlikely to have the long term effects implied by an overly liberal interpretations of the findings' external validity and potential application.
 
Article:
This footnote was added on 31 March 2010: The study findings above, and the methods used, are challenged by researchers associated with the social psychology department at the London School of Economics, the Institute of Ecological Economy Research in Berlin, and the Institute for Perspective Technological Studies in Seville. Their analysis can be found here: lrcg.co.uk


Article:
In our opinion, the specific shortcomings of the research that may have contributed to its misunderstanding are as follows:

The authors used a randomised student sample and did not control for existing green consumption or replicate their study on a sample of green consumers. Using actual green consumers would most likely have produced different effects. In addition, some of the statistical findings on the interaction of priming and licensing effects, as well as other key variables, were only marginally significant. It should have been discussed that a significant effect is not necessarily meaningful and that the same experiment with people who normally consume green could have had a different outcome.

In their experiment the authors forced their participants to consume green. This may have produced cognitive dissonance and moral compensation by participants in other domains (so called contrast effects - here part of ‘licensing’). Hence, the support of 'psychological licensing' by green consumers is not necessarily as clear-cut as it is made out to be in the article. Although the authors do acknowledge interactions between the variables in their research [‘By explicitly contrasting mere exposure with purchasing, we explored the complex interaction between two possible processes (priming and licensing). Our findings suggest that not all exposures have the same priming effect and that other processes (i.e. licensing) can negate or even replace the priming effect'], the authors fail to make other possible explanations for their findings explicit.

Ethical behaviour and green consumption are complex social and dynamic processes embedded in a particular cultural context. In fact, they are likely to be the outcome of a number of processes involving a set of key values held by the consumer, as well as other social variables influencing peoples behaviour over time. In our opinion, academic research that picks up themes from 'the real world' should reflect critically on research implications, especially by discussing the generalisability of the effects measured under laboratory conditions. Unfortunately, this particular research is not sufficiently critical of its own methods or interpretation; it does not reflect on the limitations of the research caused by its methodology.

In our view, the research only demonstrates what happens if people are forced to consume green in a laboratory experiment. Mere exposure to green products alone is unlikely to have the long term effects implied by an overly liberal interpretations of the findings' external validity and potential application.
I find the language in the critique a bit obtuse. Can you give me a basic summary?
 
I find the language in the critique a bit obtuse. Can you give me a basic summary?
it's not ok to generalize the study to be about environmentalists, because
a) "not using actual green consumers" (a point you also made in the OP) and
b) becoming an environmentalist is a long-term "outcome of a number of processes" that aren't reflected in this "laboratory experiment", and
c) the numbers "were only marginally significant" and allow for "other possible explanations for their findings", i.e. they were overstating the strength of their result.

Basically, the study shows what happens when you force people to buy green, but that's quite different from what goes on in a person as they become environmentalists: you can't really generalize the former to the latter because these are very different processes, and the study authors/the media shouldn't have done that.
 
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