January is a month of sack cloth and ashes, a time of painful recommitment to the ideals of health and the body beautiful.
Not for me, of course. For me, the olive in my martini counts towards my five a day, whatever page the calendar is turned to. But for the youngsters in my office who still nurture a stuttering flame of hope, now is the season for dieting and joining gyms.
Of course, this ritual of self-denial is a fairly obvious form of compensatory behaviour following the excesses of Christmas. A way of sluicing away the guilt engendered by a month spent subsisting on a diet of complex carbohydrates, ethanol and HBO box sets.
It’s simple, predictable and universally human; a secular version of the kind of moral cleansing achieved by Hindus bathing in the Ganges. Or a modern-day, low-voltage take on the Judaeo-Christian concept of atonement.
You can observe such minor attempts at redemption every day at your local supermarket. Take a peek into other people’s shopping trolleys. Or your own, if you’re feeling brave. How many times do you see a tub of low-fat spread nestled alongside a bag of those premium crisps that have been fried in goose fat before being sprinkled with enough salt to induce hypertension in a yak?
Recent research* suggests that there’s more to this kind of compensatory behaviour than first meets the eye. Three researchers from Northwestern University in the US have produced experimental evidence that humans have a kind of moral thermostat that regulates our behavioural choices.
The first big insight they offer is that our brains use a common currency of morality, so that bad behaviour in one part of our life can be balanced out by good behaviour in another. In other words, you don’t have to diet or exercise to feel better about an eating binge. You could conceivably make a donation to charity or help an old lady across the road and achieve the same effect.
This makes sense of a comment I heard in a focus group over a year ago. I was talking to thirtysomething women in Nottinghamshire about global warming. Suddenly, one of them snapped like the mad newsreader in the movie Network. “I’m not going to turn the central heating down to save a bloody polar bear,” she huffed. “I mean, we’ve already switched to fat-free milk.”
At the time, I let this comment pass unchallenged. As an East Midlander myself, I know logic operates differently in that part of the world. But looking back, it makes perfect sense. The woman in question had her moral scales in perfect equilibrium already. No furry animal was going to disrupt that balance, no matter how cute or imperilled it might be.
The second big insight from the Northwestern study is that moral offsetting works two ways. Therefore, doing good confers permission to be a little bad. The researchers call this “moral licensing”. Moral behaviour can be banked. But it doesn’t pay a very good rate of interest. So we have a natural tendency to spend our reserves of moral good as soon as we can.
In support of this theory, the researchers cite a study involving charitable church-goers. In this example, a change in the local tax regime made charitable giving more advantageous. As a result, two things happened. The church-goers increased the value of their donations. And at the same time, the frequency of their church-going decreased.
It was as if the subjects’ moral thermostats had acted automatically to maintain an optimal temperature of goodness. Not too little, but not too much either.
The same phenomenon was noted in an experiment the researchers conducted themselves. Two groups of respondents were asked to write a short essay about themselves. One group had to use words like “caring”, “generous” and “fair”. The other had to use words like “greedy”, “mean” and “selfish”. Understandably, this exercise had an influence on the respondents’ sense of self-worth.
The fascinating bit was what happened next. Both groups took part in a decision-making exercise that asked them to imagine they were a factory manager faced with making a trade-off between profit and environmental responsibility. The group burdened with a sense of sin tended to make altruistic decisions. The group with a higher sense of self-worth apparently felt entitled to choose the route of maximum profit.
Which prompts the tantalising question: how could marketers apply this theory of moral self-regulation? Intuition tells us to place ads for gyms and diet plans next to editorial about New Year’s resolutions and to site our exotic dancing establishments next to casinos. But what if we’re wrong? What if the best place to sell sin is in the parish newsletter, and the optimal time to appeal to virtue is immediately after transgression?
If such notions sound fanciful, consider this. The algorithms that optimise online ad placement are not prone to making intuitive leaps. They follow the money, plain and simple. So why is one of the most frequently-served ads on my favourite motoring website an appeal to donate money to save the environment? I can think of three people at Northwestern who would love to see the analytics on that.
Anyway, all this talk of virtue has quite depressed me. I’m off to the gym. And mine’s a double.
*Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation. Psychological Science, Volume 20, Number 4