Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

Reaping what has yet to be sown: Planning good future behavior increases bad behavior now

By Janina Steinmetz, Brittany Christian


We’ve all experienced the pleasure of merely deciding to do something good. Whether we made up our mind to donate to charity or to buy a friend a treat, knowing that we’ll do good can be enough to make us feel like a better person already, although nothing has been done yet. On the one hand, the good feeling that comes from planning good things gives us purpose in life because we’re aspiring to do something good in the future. Ironically, however, when we’ve just established that we’ll be good soon, we might feel licensed to be bad now.

Indeed, recent research from graduate student Jessica Cascio and professor Ashby Plant from Florida State University shows how planning good things may lead us to do bad things now. In this paper, participants indicated their interest in doing morally good activities such as taking part in a fundraiser or donating blood. Afterwards, they expressed their racial attitudes and made hypothetical hiring decisions between Black and White job candidates. Participants who had committed to doing something good or even who had stated interest in doing something good were more likely to express negative attitudes towards Blacks and to prefer the White job candidate. In other words, although participants know they shouldn’t express racist attitudes and behavior, it seems that their future good behavior compensated for some bad behavior happening right now.

Image ©: - Komodor -  2010

But why exactly does planning good deeds lead to bad behavior now? Do people feel that showing good intentions makes them appear like a good enough person, so that they can then let go of further restraint? Or do people feel good and bad acts cancel each other out, and it’s the sum that counts? Cascio and Plant suggest that the latter might be true. Because participants expressed more explicit racial attitudes, the effect cannot be due to simply arguing away the morally wrong behavior, because endorsing such racial attitudes is clearly morally wrong. In other words, stating good intentions gives people moral credits, which can be used to compensate for some bad behavior, while maintaining the feeling that one is doing fine morally because the good outweighs the bad. This ironic effect of future moral behavior resonates well with work by New Paths to Purpose member Eugene Caruso, who has shown that good acts are perceived as even better they will happen in the future, compared to when they did happen in the past.

Planning good deeds can make us feel good and can help us to strive for a purposeful life. However, it seems that there are times when good intentions can backfire, excusing less purpose-oriented actions in the present. When counting calories or dollars, mentally calculating present and future behaviors may not be so detrimental (assuming you follow through with your intentions). Moral behavior, however, is not a zero-sum game meaning that we have to be especially careful not let good intentions pave the way for negative actions.


Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

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