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Several studies have shown that moral licensing by observers makes observers more lenient in their judgment of subsequent immoral behaviors committed by a person. Environmental behavior is generally perceived as moral behavior, but it is not known whether it can trigger moral licensing by observers. In two pre-registered experimental laboratory studies (N1 = 198, N2 = 501), we have tested whether prior engagement in pro-environmental behavior triggers licensing by observers and thus makes observers judge more positively actors’ subsequent immoral behavior (Study 1) and their subsequent anti- and pro-environmental behaviors (Study 2). We found that people engaging in pro-environmental behavior were subsequently rated as more pro-environmental and moral, and their subsequent pro- and anti-environmental behaviors (but not outright immoral behavior) were rated as more moral by observers. As these effects also concern subsequent pro-environmental behaviors, they are broader than what licensing theory suggests.
Urban, J., Bahník, Š., & Braun Kohlová, M. (2023). Pro-Environmental Behavior Triggers Moral Inference, Not Licensing by Observers. Environment and Behavior, 55(1–2), 74–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/00139165231163547