Licenced to steal: Why good customers behave badly

Standing in front of a self-service register at your local supermarket, you have just realised you forget to scan that chocolate bar. You have choice: start a new transaction, leave the item behind – or take the chocolate without paying for it.

You consider this conundrum. You did skip lunch today to help a colleague meet an urgent deadline. You did buy some raffle tickets to support a local sporting club this afternoon and you shop in this supermarket every week. So, you are a good person – but you still pop that chocolate in your pocket and walk out.

You have just given yourself the licence to steal.

Why good people do bad

Self-licensing is a term used in social psychology and marketing to describe the phenomenon whereby people allow themselves to do something bad after doing something good first. This increase in self-confidence tends to make the individual worry less about the consequences of subsequent bad behaviour and therefore more likely to make poor or unethical choices.

While petty theft may be at one end of the continuum, self-licensing has been found in other contexts – like when people allow themselves to “indulge” in junk food after spending the week eating healthy and exercising, or buying expensive or hedonic products after “working hard” all week.

Everyone’s self-licensing will look different, because everyone has a different “deviance threshold” – that mental line in the sand dictating right and wrong.

Moral credentials

A subset of the licensing effect, the moral credential effect, is an unconscious bias that occurs when a person feels they have demonstrated a long-term pattern of pro-social or egalitarian behaviour, thereby providing themselves with an unconscious ethical certification, or licence, to make less pro-social or equitable decisions at a later stage.

Using the “metaphor of the ledger” justification technique, consumers make ongoing comparisons between the behaviours they engage in, where good behaviour will cancel out bad behaviour. This is how consumers keep a positive, or at least neutral, view of themselves.

Research has shown that unethical behaviour is often demonstrated because people do not recognise that their actions are unethical or wrong. Simply put, they are subject to systematic “ethical blind spots”. These ethical blind spots may be the result of unconscious biases, temporal distance or unnoticed unethical decisions.

Unconscious biases

Literature on implicit social cognition illustrates how unconscious attitudes can lead people to act against their ethical values or moral codes. For example, a person may not deliberately or knowingly discriminate against others, however they may offer preferential treatment to those they like or know personally – their “in-group” – leading to unconscious discrimination towards others – their “out-group”.

Examples of in-group favouritism include elite US universities that give preference to “legacy” candidates (the children of alumni), airline flight crews who give colleagues upgrades, or employers who more frequently grant interviews to applicants with Anglo names.

In a retail context, shoplifters regularly justify petty theft with reasons like,

“the store overcharges to begin with” or “the store won’t miss it”. Shoppers see the retailers as the out-group and other shoppers as the in-group.

As found in a series of interviews conducted by Paula Dootson from the QUT Business school: “You tend to think that organisations can handle it more, like maybe they’ve got some funding set aside to handle things that you might do . . . individual people don’t generally have any kind of protection against that. And then there’s just the perception, I suppose, that companies don’t really have a human face. . .It’s being able to personally identify people that magnifies everything.

“Look at the size of the store, what they’re charging, at the profits, excessive profits they’re making, like X and Y [two large grocery stores] are doing it in a way that’s unacceptable as a duopoly, so people will convince themselves that it’s acceptable to hit back,” Dr Dootson reported.

The effect of time

Temporal distance from an ethical decision can be another source of unethical behavior.

When thinking about future ethical choices, people experience tension between a part of them that wants immediate gratification (the “want self”) and the part that seeks to make responsible and ethical decisions (the “should self”). However, individuals tend to overestimate the extent to which they will behave morally in the future. We all have the very best intentions to eat well, exercise more and give to charity.

Therefore, when making a decision, people predict they will behave in accordance with their “should self”, a choice that supports their moral self-view, i.e. “I will always accurately scan every item I purchase at this supermarket”. However, when it is time to make a decision, the “want self” becomes dominant. The immediate gains from the unethical act become much more important, i.e. “I am in a rush, I spend money here every week and simply don’t have the time to start a new transaction”.

People are more likely to cheat if they feel they are running out of time.

The slippery slope

Everyone does it. Whether it is texting while driving or misrepresenting a product at a checkout, researchers have examined why people ignore or fail to recognise unethical behaviour.

A factor that complicates our ability to recognise or tolerate unethical behavior is whether the deviant behaviour happens progressively or abruptly. In the case of shoplifting, the behaviour is not overt and retailers rarely publicise the extent of the problem. The “slippery slope effect” is the phenomenon where unconscious biases prevent us from detecting this gradual deterioration of ethical behaviour, which ultimately leads to future unethical behaviour.

Incremental progression of deviant consumer behaviour means small shifts can occur in consumers’ deviance threshold, where their line in the sand moves over time, allowing to greater degrees of deviance.

Moral messages

How can we deter consumers from using a licence to steal? This is a very complicated phenomenon to address because retailers are not in control of their customers’ actions – their moral ledgers – over time.

One approach could be using moral reminders at the point of sale (where items are misrepresented) or throughout the store (in high-risk areas). Moral reminders are messages that increase the salience of moral values, such as honesty, to trigger self-sanctions (e.g., guilt, shame, self-depreciation), so that people deter themselves from, or punish themselves for, engaging in certain behaviours.

When used prior to the opportunity to lie or steal (such as simply reminding people to be honest) they could reduce propensity for deviance.

Retailers may display a message indicating that a majority of customers buying red onions “actually swiped them as red ones, not the cheaper brown onions” to encourage similar behaviour.

A message thanking the shopper for their contribution via regular purchases to a store’s donation to a local charity may also reduce deviant behaviour.

Gary Mortimer is an associate professor in marketing and international business at Queensland University of Technology.

You have 7 articles remaining. Unlock 15 free articles a month, it’s free.