The study of how we form opinions of our own moral worth is a budding field, and it suggests that the human mind works in powerful, subtle ways to make hypocrites out of all of us – especially those who hold themselves in the highest moral esteem. People who inveigh against a vice in others are often themselves fixated on it, and more likely to succumb to its allure. And, the research suggests, virtuous deeds are often a form of penance for thoughts a person is ashamed of.
Indeed, recent work has suggested that the very act of seeing oneself as a good person can make it harder to avoid doing immoral things. In part it’s a matter of rationalization, and the better a person we think we are, the better we are at rationalizing. In part it stems from the oddly perishable nature of human self-control, and the way that, like a muscle, it tires after extended use. But also in operation, the researchers suggest, is a sort of moral “set point”: an innate human sense that there is such a thing as too much moral behavior. And when we stray too far from the mean in either direction – even if it’s toward saintliness – we revert, sometimes spectacularly.
“If you have a holier-than-thou attitude about temptation, you probably are ushering it in,” says Loran Nordgren, a social psychologist and assistant professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business who has studied how people underestimate the power of their impulses.
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