• Saransh Sharma

Behavioral balancing - Definitions, Causes, Risks, Advantages & Debiasing


Behavioral balancing occurs when a deviation from a “normal state of being” is balanced with a subsequent action that compensates the prior behavior (Brañas-Garza at al., 2011). Two domains where balancing effects have been studied most closely are moral behaviors and risk-taking.

Moral licensing occurs when past good deeds liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral (Merritt et al., 2010). Symmetrically, moral cleansing is observed when past bad actions trigger negative feelings that make people more likely to engage in future moral behavior to offset them (Brañas-Garza at al., 2011). Some researchers suggest that moral licensing and moral cleansing should be considered jointly as being part of a moral self-regulation process (Sachdeva et al., 2009).

Now, risk compensation is defined as the tendency to take greater risks when perceived safety increases, and to be more careful when perceived risk increases (Phillips, 1999).

In a typical experiment to elicit moral licensing effect, participants are first given an opportunity to gain a moral license and then their moral judgment is tested in a decision task (Simbrunner & Schlegelmilch, 2017). For example, in a study conducted just before the 2008 US Presidential election, a group of participants were asked whether they'd vote for Barack Obama or John McCain, followed by a task wherein they had to judge whether a police force job was better suited for a certain race. Now, another group was asked to do the decision task first and then express their preference between the 2 presidential candidates. Participants who voiced support for Obama before the decision-making task, were more likely to say that the police force job was more suitable for white candidates, compared to the participant who expressed their support for Obama after the task. So it seems that the act of expressing support for a Black presidential candidate made the participants feel that they no longer needed to prove their lack of prejudice (Effron et al., 2009).


Cognitive causes are the psychological mechanisms that explain the bias. It is likely that no one of the multiple explanations can explain every instance of the bias, and each explanation is valid in some cases and invalid in others.

To explain moral balancing, researchers propose 2 models. First, the moral credits model suggests that we maintain a mental moral account such that good deeds establish moral credits like some sort of moral currency that can be used to ‘‘purchase’’ the right to do bad deeds with no guilt (Merritt et al., 2010). On the other hand, the moral credentialing model proposes that past good deeds are pieces of evidence that a person use to justify to themselves or others that they are not prejudiced or ill-intentioned, and therefore make the case that their bad deeds are being wrongly interpreted and that they are actually not bad or immoral at all (Krumm & Corning, 2008).

Moral credentialing model can be further understood in terms of the role of the moral self-image. We use our past moral actions to establish a positive moral self-image. Once established, this positive self-image can be used to justify or reinterpret immoral behaviors such that the blame is not attributed to self and there are no feelings of guilt. The role of self-image is so prominent that moral credential can even be established vicariously i.e. feeling close or connected to another individual or an in-group member who displays moral behavior can lead people to behave immorally themselves (Kouchaki, 2011). This is because according to social identity theory, we derive a part of our self-image from the social groups we belong to, and therefore actions of in-group members can affect our self-image (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

Next, for licensing effects to occur, there must be a conflict of motives such as a conflict between acting in self-interest and doing the “morally right” thing (Mullen & Monin, 2016). In such situations, we often suppress our own desires and preferences. So moral credentialing doesn't create new motivation for doing bad deeds but rather reduces our tendency to suppress our existing motivations (Monin & Miller, 2001).

Next, looking at risk compensation, risk homeostasis theory proposes that each individual has a “set point,” the level of overall risk he or she finds acceptable to achieve a given goal. Afterall, high risk often entails high rewards, which drives our risk-seeking behavior. When navigating risks and rewards in a given situation, individuals adjust their actions to maintain their set point (Hogben & Lidden, 2008). If the perceived risk of a situation exceeds our target level, we will act to reduce it. And if the perceived risk is lower than our target level, we will attempt to increase our risk back to our target level through more dangerous actions (Hedlund, 2000).

Risk allostasis theory is another model for compensation which proposes that an individual's set point is not based on statistical estimates of risks and rewards, but rather on the feeling of risk which is informed by their perceptions of task difficulty and self efficacy, goals and motivations, as well as personality and environmental factors (Fuller, 2011).


We don't yet fully understand the neural basis of compensation and licensing, but 2 brain regions have been nonetheless identified to play a key role - Insula and Anterior cingulate cortex (Hongbo et al., 2014, Xue et al., 2010). Insula is involved in integration of affective information and production of emotions, especially self-aware emotions like guilt, which we know to play a role in moral balancing. Insula is also involved in homeostatic processes which are the balancing of various physical and chemical conditions in the body such as blood sugar, temperature, etc. to maintain a steady state. So it's not surprising at all that Insula is also involved in risk and moral homeostasis. Now, anterior cingulate cortex is involved in detection of conflicts or deviations from expectations, and it is likely that it plays the same role in detecting deviations from moral self-image and the set point of risk tolerance. The cingulate cortex also is a part of the default mode network which is plays a key role in our sense of self and self-image.


For the bias to be passed down genetically or culturally to us from our ancestors, it must be beneficial in certain conditions.

Firstly, humans are social beings - our social groups influence our own self-image, and our reputation in these social groups impacts our well-being. Now, studies show that moral credentialing can often be quite strategic i.e. if we believe that our reputation may come under question in the future, we may try to acquire moral credentials to protect our reputation (Bradley-Geist et al., 2010). Studies have also shown that this strategy does work i.e. people do take an individual's moral credentials into account while judging their moral conduct (Krumm & Corning, 2008).

Next, licensing could be a valuable strategy to facilitate open conversations about sensitive topics as it can alleviate anxiety about saying something offensive. Similarly, if people were to continually worry about being moral in every single act or decision, many other individual and social goals would suffer. Licensing liberates us to make socially unpopular but nonetheless necessary decisions (Merritt et al., 2010).

And lastly, risk compensation allows us to pursue our goals and rewarding experiences, without being paralyzed by the fear of risks. Afterall, there are almost no situations where we can be confident of zero risks. On the contrary, high risk often promises the highest rewards.


Firstly, studies have shown moral licensing to work across multiple decision categories such as political incorrectness, selfishness and indulgent/frivolous consumer behaviors. What's more - moral licensing does not seem to be a within-domain phenomenon i.e. credentials gained doing one activity could license a completely different kind of action (Blanken et al., 2015). E.g. a study showed that people who received weekly feedback on their water consumption lowered their water use (6.0% on average), but at the same time increased their electricity consumption (Tiefenbeck et al., 2013).

Next, licensing can become habitual such that people keep going to and fro between misbehaviors and gaining moral credentials. In this way, licensing almost works as a psychological shield for people to sustain their immoral conduct without feeling any guilt (Brown et al., 2011). Indeed, studies show that securing a moral self-image need not require proof that one is a good person; it may only require evidence that one is not a bad person. And what people seem willing to accept as evidence that they are not a bad is remarkably scanty. A study found that people can license immoral behavior by merely Imagining counterfactual transgressions – bad deeds that one could have performed, but did not (Effron et al., 2012).

Next, risk compensation has been shown to undermine the efficacy and benefits of public safety and risk reduction programs. There are numerous examples of this like enforcing wearing seat belts in motor vehicles may lead to people driving faster and more rash, application of sunscreen may lead to more time spent exposed to sun, promotion of protected sex may lead to increase in other risky sexual practices such as multiple partners and during COVID pandemic, wearing masks may have lead some people to put themselves in more risky situations (Cassell et al., 2006). Moreover, our risk taking behaviors often expose others to more risks as well. A rash driver on the road can endanger the safety of other vehicles on the road (Phillips, 1999).

Managing Bias

Finally, let’s look at some strategies to avoid the undesirable impacts of balancing and use it to our advantage.

Both licensing and compensation effects are highly contextual, that is we may or may not observe these tendencies based on the specifics of the situation (Rotella & Barclay, 2020; O'Neill & Williams, 1998). Hence, it is quite important to understand when we should expect balancing to occur.

First, licensing is more likely to occur when the morality of behaviors is ambiguous or immoral actions are easy to rationalize (Mullen & Monin, 2016). So, more clear the moral standards in a situation or the ulterior motives behind a past moral action, harder it is to license.

Second, balancing tendencies are strongly countered by the drive towards consistency i.e. acting in accordance to our self-image and the moral values that we attach to it. By strengthening consistency, licensing effects can be reduced (Rotella & Barclay, 2020). So if we frame a moral behavior as reflecting individual's commitment to their moral values, they are more likely to show consistency. But if we focus more on the specifics of the moral behavior itself, individuals are more likely to license. Furthermore, stronger an individual's identification with a moral value, more likely are consistency effects (Mullen & Monin, 2016).

Social labeling is another way to frame a moral action as commitment, thus prompting consistency in future behavior. E.g. in a study, the group of children who were told repeatedly that they were tidy (i.e., given a label) littered less than the group told that they should be neat and tidy (Merritt et al., 2010).

Next, due to the social aspect of our self-image, licensing is more likely in situations where an individual has established their reputation and thus is driven to protect it (Rotella & Barclay, 2020). So licensing is more likely among ingroup members, and conversely, in-group members are more likely to consider moral credentials while judging a individual's actions (Krumm & Corning, 2008).

And finally, risk compensation is most likely in situations where individuals have clear goals or rewards to be gained. In such situations, any risk reducing intervention needs to present alternative means to meet the individuals' goals, convince them to modify their goals, or match their goals to the intervention goals (Hogben & Liddon, 2008).



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