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Unnamed comments on Doing your good deed for the day - Less Wrong

115 Post author: Yvain 27 October 2009 12:45AM

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Comment author: Unnamed 27 October 2009 03:46:17AM *  40 points [-]

There's some research showing the opposite effect: escalation of good-deed-doing as one good deed leads to another. For instance, a classic study on the foot-in-the-door technique found that people who were asked to put a small "keep California beautiful" sign in their window were later more likely to agree to put a huge "drive carefully" sign in their yard (as an apparently unrelated request). This escalation could also be due to a self-signaling process, as people come to believe that they're the type of person who does this sort of thing.

Part of the difference is the time scale: the self-satisfaction of doing a good deed may fade relatively quickly, while the strengthened commitment to do-gooding persists for longer. That actually fits with Baumeister's view of willpower. He's argued that willpower is like a muscle: when used it tires in the short term but is strengthened for the the long term.

So it's hard to say whether involvement in symbolic do-gooding like church, Facebook groups, or political arguments helps or hinders the pursuit of genuinely important moral causes. They're not necessarily sinkholes - they could be useful practice, building moral fiber instead of wasting it. If you let them take over and you never do anything besides "practicing," though, then you may have a problem.

Comment author: Zvi 27 October 2009 06:16:06PM 11 points [-]

These two effects can both be going on at the same time, and together the story makes sense. Suppose that any given person has a perception of themselves - do I eat a good diet, give to charity, or what not - and also keeps track of whether they have lived up to that person.

The foot-in-the-door trick works because while the requests are apparently unrelated, of course they are not: You've decided you are the type of person who puts signs up for a good cause, so this is something you would agree to again. This effect is in that context sufficient to overwhelm the feeling that they've "put up enough signs today," but as more signs were added this could change. They also probably want to be consistent with themselves.

However, the very point of the new study is that you now act less moral in an unrelated context. If I think of myself as someone who buys environmental products, that doesn't create a self-image of someone who is more generous in the dictator game or more honest.

This would suggest once again that the solution is to do only moral things that are worth doing, but also to especially focus on those that will change our moral view of ourselves, either overall or towards more productive actions.

Comment author: Unnamed 27 October 2009 11:55:50PM *  11 points [-]

There have been other studies showing that the self-image escalation effect (found in the foot-in-the-door study) extends beyond specific behaviors (like putting up signs) to more general types of behavior (like supporting good causes in the community) or personality traits (like honesty). In the study I described, signing a petition (instead of putting a sign in your window) also works at increasing your chances of agreeing to put a big sign in your yard. In another study, second graders were asked not to play with a desirable toy, using a mild request that made it seem (to the child) that it was their own choice not to play with the toy. The prediction was that this would lead the kids to see themselves as good boys/girls for not playing with the forbidden toy. Compared to a control group (or a group of children who were given a sterner warning, so that they saw the adult as requiring them not to play with the toy), those kids described themselves as more honest, and a couple weeks later they were less likely to cheat at a game in order to win a prize.

Comment author: Nanani 28 October 2009 05:19:18AM 6 points [-]

This doesn't sound like quite the same sort of thing.

If you put a sign up, you see the sign, and it is present as a physical reminder. With the intangible good deeds, there isn't such a token. I suspect that actually making tokens (gold stars, candies, money, Whatever.) for the good deeds in the style of the original post would not have a foot-in-the-door effect.

Can we check this somehow?

Comment author: MixedNuts 23 June 2011 12:04:16PM 3 points [-]

Pick a cause (say, VillageReach). In two similar locations, run a donation drive for it; in the first, have a bake sale (or other quickly consumed goods), in the second, sell those little cause-promoting bracelets (or other lasting tokens). Test altruism in both an hour later (purchase of moral satisfaction) and a week later (foot-in-the-door).

Also, a study on smokers showed that asking people to stop smoking for a short time makes them more likely to accept stopping smoking for several weeks, so tokens seem unecessary for foot-in-the-door.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 27 October 2009 04:03:16PM *  6 points [-]

the self-satisfaction of doing a good deed may fade relatively quickly, while the strengthened commitment to do-gooding persists for longer. That actually fits with Baumeister's view of willpower. He's argued that willpower is like a muscle: when used it tires in the short term but is strengthened for the the long term.

This point significantly undermines the conclusion of the original post.

Comment author: patrissimo 07 November 2009 07:43:09PM 0 points [-]

Yep, exactly what I was going to say. Advocates of easy & useless do-gooding claim that such activities are a slippery-slope towards more difficult & more impactful do-gooding. I am somewhat skeptical, but this research does not contradict it.