Moral Licensing: Side Effects of an Efficiency Campaign

recent field study I conducted with colleagues at Fraunhofer CSE showed interesting potential side effects of an efficiency / environmental program. Last summer, we carried out a water conservation campaign at a apartment complex with 200 similar units in the Boston area. Half of the residents received weekly feedback on their water consumption, half did not. As expected, the ones who got feedback did reduce their water consumption, but I also found evidence for something much more intriguing: during that time, households in this group increased their electricity consumption relative to the control group!

The effect that I attribute this to is called moral licensing; it states that people who get the impression that they are already “doing something for the environment” (like water conservation) might feel “morally licensed” to make less environmental choices in other domains (and thus increase their electricity consumption, for example). Quite a lot of research has been published recently on this topic in other behavioral domains, like certain consumer choices (food, movies), and on racism, sexism, etc., but very few field studies investigated this in a real-world setting in an energy consumption or environmental context.


Flyers like these were used to give residents regular feedback on their consumption.

Flyers like these were used to give residents regular feedback on their consumption.


I am excited about this study because of its relevance for efficiency / environmental campaigns and policy. This moral licensing effect might drastically alter the design and evaluation of efficiency / environmental programs, as some of them might actually have a considerably less positive–or even negative–impact in terms of CO2 emissions reduction. We need more studies to determine whether evidence for this can be found in other contexts and whether the effect is only a short-term phenomenon or whether it persists over time. It could also mean that we have to rethink environmental messages of campaigns: people should know that their actions are important for the environment, but they should not get the impression that they are already “doing enough” and rest on their laurels.

At the end of 2011, I attended the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change (BECC) conference in Washington DC, where I gave a panel presentation on this topic of moral licensing and spillover effects in the context of residential energy consumption. I was thrilled with the great feedback I got in discussions following my panel presentation. Some of them made me aware of angles I had not considered in the presentation, which I am now incorporating into my work. One of my co-panelists, Matthew Harding, a assistant professor at Stanford, carries out research on a similar topic and gave me some valuable input.

The session I most enjoyed at BECC was on behavioral economics. The talk, “Saving Energy: I’ll Do the Easy Thing, You Do the Hard Thing” by Shahzeen Attari was particularly informative. In a way, she addressed another aspect of why environmental behavior change is so difficult to achieve by the human nature: not only do we overestimate the impact of our own positive actions, we also have a tendency to pick the simple and painless actions for ourselves, thinking that “the others” should do more. As a German saying puts it: we should learn to sweep our own yard first. (Wow. It seems that even in our daily figures of speech we have to evoke cleanliness in German. Long live stereotypes…)

About author
I'm previously worked as a Visiting Scientist at Fraunhofer CSE, where I was heavily involved in Building Energy Technologies' group's human factors research.
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