The saintly devlish do-gooders

Saintly deeds may put do-gooders in a position to commit sin and vice-versa, according to a recent Northwestern psychological study that has received a vast amount of media attention.

The study, entitled “Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation” was conducted by Weinberg Prof. Douglas Medin and two Weinberg graduate students, Rumen Iliev and Sonya Sachdeva. It was published in the journal Psychological Science, according to an NU press release.

The study is the first to demonstrate how people on the different ends of the spectrum between good and bad may be inclined to demonstrate behavior characteristic of the opposite extremity.

“If you have a really good workout at the gym, you feel you have a moral license to eat chocolate or something,” Iliev said.

Through a series of three experiments, the study suggests that the “saintly” can exhibit immoral behavior that stems from the imbalance caused by their inflated moral self-esteem, which drives them to commit “sin” to restore a balance. The study also showed that the same mentality applied to people who habitually engage in immoral behavior and use good work to “cleanse” themselves.

“The prediction was that if this moral balancing thing is explicitly related to your moral being, then we would have this effect only when the words were about yourself, and this was pretty much what we found,” she said. “The effect doesn’t happen when you talk about other people.”

Iliev attributes the attention the study has received from large media outlets, such as the Science Daily, to peoples’ tendencies to link the results to recent events, though she said they would need more data to make those links.

“We want to generalize it to other cultures, explaining real world events,” she said.

To this effect, the researchers have stressed the cross-cultural differences in the new model, suggesting that the same tests ran in another country would yield different results, according to the press release.

“Sonya and Rumen may have even more intriguing results in the future,” said Medin, “because they are examining whether the results generalize to different cultures.”

Sean Collins Walsh contributed reporting