How an Active Imagination Can Justify Moral Inconsistencies

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Effron, D. A., Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2024). Motivated counterfactual thinking and moral inconsistency: How we use our imaginations to selectively condemn and condone. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 33(3), 146–152.

Few people fully adhere to their own values and moral beliefs. We may consider ourselves honest, but we occasionally lie or fudge our taxes. We strive to be healthy, but we indulge in our favorite dessert or skip a workout now and then. For college students with high academic standards, the occasional transgression may include cheating or misrepresenting one’s work. After all, with tools like Chegg and ChatGPT, the options for cheating are plentiful.  

New research by Daniel Effron and colleagues (2024) suggests that this increase in options for cheating could in fact lead students to cheat—and feel justified in doing so—but not simply because cheating is easier. Counterfactual thinking plays a role. They argue that when making moral decisions (such as whether to cheat), people imagine how much worse their own behavior could have been. If students believe they could have cheated many times before and didn’t, they may be more inclined to give themselves permission to cheat now (Effron et al., 2012, 2013). As Effron and colleagues put it, “Imagining the sins you avoided licenses future sin” (Effron et al., 2024, p. 3). 

People may use counterfactual thinking in three ways to selectively apply their moral principles. First, they may imagine outcomes that are different from reality (e.g., how many times they could have cheated). These imagined outcomes can then be used to justify current behaviors (e.g., using artificial intelligence to write a paper) that would otherwise violate their principles or values. For example, when dieters anticipated indulging in delicious but unhealthy cookies, they inflated the unhealthiness of the foods they recently resisted (Effron et al., 2013). The cookies, it seems, were a justified reward for their previous impressive willpower

Second, people use counterfactual thinking to alter their moral compass by comparing a lived reality to an alternative reality. For example, if they want to condone immoral behavior (e.g., cheating on a test) they will envision a favorable, imagined reality (e.g., easily passing the test without cheating) and see the two realities as similar. Consider the Trump administration’s false claim that his 2017 inauguration drew historically large crowds. When challenged on that claim, the administration noted that the crowd would have been larger but for the bad weather. For Trump’s supporters, this positive comparison of the lived reality (a small inauguration crowd) to a desired albeit fake reality (a historically large crowd) likely softened their objection to the false claim. After all, the crowd would have been historic if the weather had been better. Lies are judged as less unethical if the lived reality feels similar to an imagined reality in which the lie is true, particularly when the lie aligns with personal views or beliefs (Effron, 2018).  

A third driver of inconsistencies in moral reasoning is the fact that people give more or less weight to counterfactuals, depending on whether those counterfactuals align with personal beliefs. For example, in one study, journalists who criticized a president were more likely to be perceived as employing a double standard and labeled as hypocrites by supporters of the president than by opponents (Helgason & Effron, 2022). Thus, supporters were more likely to imagine a counterfactual that aligned with their beliefs (i.e., that the journalist had a double standard) and gave that counterfactual more weight (thus leading the journalist to be labeled as a hypocrite). 

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Effron, D. A. (2018). It could have been true: How counterfactual thoughts reduce condemnation of falsehoods and increase political polarization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(5), 729–745. 

Effron, D. A., Miller, D. T., & Monin, B. (2012). Inventing racist roads not taken: The licensing effect of immoral counterfactual behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(6), 916–932.  

Effron, D. A., Monin, B., & Miller, D. T. (2013). The unhealthy road not taken: Licensing indulgence by exaggerating counterfactual sins. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(3), 573–578.

Helgason, B. A., & Effron, D. A. (2022). From critical to hypocritical: Counterfactual thinking increases partisan disagreement about media hypocrisy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 101, 104308.

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