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Does driving a high-mileage hybrid encourage motorists to develop "compensatory ethics"?

Ask any California motorist and they’ll tell you about the folks in the Prius hybrids.  For several years, the high-mileage vehicles qualified for special stickers that let them drive in the car pool lanes on local highways, even with just one person onboard.

“And you’d seem to find most of them driving well below the speed limit,” grumps Bill Tabor, an Orange County mid-level manager, who had to squeeze several colleagues into his low-mileage Honda Accord to get the same access.  “It was as if they suddenly were the authority, setting the speed that everyone else would have to drive.”

Frustrating, no question.  But according to a new study, it’s also no surprise.

People who wear the “halo of green consumerism” may like to be seen as saving the planet, but they’re less likely to be kind to others and surprisingly likely to cheat and steal, according to a study by the Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, who published their findings in the journal Psychological Science, under the title, “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?”

Apparently, the answer is not also a resounding no.

“Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviors,” Mazar and Zhong contend.

They back that finding up with the results of a series of tests.  In one, green consumers were more likely than other, less environmentally-focused consumers to cheat in a computer game to get more money – and then lie about it.  In fact, in another test in which participants were put on the honor system and asked to take money from an envelope to pay themselves for purchases, the study team found greenies were six times more likely to steal.

“Green products do not necessarily make for better people,” the report in Psychological Science declares.

The degree to which the environmentally-minded consumers proved to have otherwise low scruples surprised the pair.

“Given that green products are manifestations of high ethical standards and humanitarian considerations,” the authors wrote, it would otherwise seem that this would “activate norms of social responsibility and ethical conduct.”  But, instead, their findings seem to suggest that greenies just might see themselves as above the typical norms of behavior.

The authors call that “compensatory ethics,” or “moral balancing.”

Perhaps that explains why some of the most visible environmental proponents often find themselves caught in compromising situations, like Al Gore, the former Vice President and activist for preventing global warming, whose own home has turned out to use more energy than some small villages.

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