Why Saints Sin and Sinners Get Saintly

June 26, 2009,

(PhysOrg.com) -- To many, New York Gov. Eliott Spitzer's fall from grace seemed to make no sense at all. But a new Northwestern University study offers provocative insights that possibly could relate to why the storm trooper of reform -- formerly known as the Sheriff of Wall Street -- seemingly went from saint to sinner overnight.

The study suggests that people with ample moral self-worth in one aspect of their lives can slip into immorality or opposite behavior in other areas -- their abundant self-esteem somehow pushing them to balance out all that goodness.

Think, for example, of that sugar- and fat-laden concoction that you wolf down after an especially vigorous run, said Douglas Medin, professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. "That pretty much eliminates the benefits of running an extra 20 minutes," he said.

Northwestern's Sonya Sachdeva, Rumen Iliev and Medin are co-authors of "Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation," published by the journal .

Conversely, the study shows, people who engage in immoral behavior cleanse themselves with good work.

Other studies have shown the moral-cleansing effect, but this new Northwestern model shows that the cleansing also has to do with restoring an ideal level of moral self-worth. In other words, when people operate above or below a certain level of moral self-worth, they instinctively push back in the opposite direction to reach an internally regulated set point of goodness.

"If people feel too moral," Sachdeva said, "they might not have sufficient incentive to engage in moral action because of the costliness of being good."

An abundance of research shows that people are motivated both by the warm glow that results from good behavior and recognition of costly, long-term consequences of immoral behavior on kin and society at large.

But the Northwestern study for the first time shows that perhaps people whose glow is much warmer than average are more likely to regulate behavior by acting in an opposite manner or passing up opportunities to behave morally.

"Imagine a line on a plane," Sachdeva said. "If you go above the line, you feel pressure to come back down. The only way you can come back down is either by refraining from good social behavior or by actively engaging in immoral behavior."

"If you do extra good deeds, you're motivated to come back down on that internal barometer," Iliev added.

Based on three experiments, the study of how moral behavior is affected by internal self-regulation included 46 participants. For each experiment, participants were told that they were engaging in a handwriting test at Northwestern's Center for Handwriting Analysis. They also were asked if they would like to donate up to $10 to a charity of their choice.

All experiments included a positive-traits and a negative-traits condition. In the positive-traits condition, participants copied words such as kind, caring, generous and honest. In the negative condition, they wrote down words such as selfish, dishonest and cruel. They were asked to think carefully about what each word meant to them before writing a self-relevant story involving the words. To provide a control condition, experiment one also included a neutral condition, providing words such as book, car and house.

In experiment one, participants who wrote a story referring to positive traits donated one-fifth as much money to a charity as those in the negative condition. Conversely, those whose stories encompassed negative traits acted more altruistically. In summary, they gave about $5 in the negative-traits condition, about $3 in the control condition and about $1 in the positive-traits condition.

In the only change in experiment two, participants were randomly assigned to use the words to write specifically about either themselves or someone close to them. (A fourth wrote positive stories about themselves; a fourth positive stories about others; a fourth negative stories about themselves; and a fourth negative stories about others.)

The researchers assumed correctly that changes in self-concept would occur when study subjects took a first-person, rather than a third-person, perspective. The moral-cleansing and moral-licensing effects occurred only when people were talking about themselves.

In the positive condition, those who wrote about themselves donated the least, while those who wrote about others showed opposite behavior. In contrast, those in the negative condition who wrote about themselves gave more than those who told an unflattering story about others.

The third experiment looked at environmental-related behaviors and included neutral, positive-traits and negative-traits conditions. Participants assumed roles of managers of manufacturing plants and had to make a decision about putting costly filters on their smokestacks.

All the managers in their field, they were told, had gotten together and decided to run the filters 60 percent of the time. So costs were higher for anyone who decided to run the filters more than 60 percent of the time.

People in the neutral condition ran their filters 60 to 65 percent of the time; those in the negative condition ran them 73 percent of the time; and those in the positive condition ran them 55 percent of the time.

The research draws on previous research on moral regulation. People who selected themselves as nonsexist in one study, for example, tended to choose a man for a job over a woman who was a little less qualified. "In that case, when they affirmed to themselves that they were nonsexist, they were more likely to attribute their decisions to external causes rather than to sexism."

The Northwestern researchers stress cross-cultural differences in their model, suspecting, for example, if they ran tests in India, where people's actions are more interdependent, the results would be different.

"Sonya and Rumen may have even more intriguing results in the future," said Medin, the study's senior researcher, "because they are examining whether the results generalize to different cultures."

Meanwhile the Northwestern study provokes thinking about how the image of Spitzer, once a hard-hitting prosecutor who routinely brought down the high and mighty for their crooked ways, will be forever linked with a high-end prostitute.

More information: www.wiley.com/bw/journal.asp?ref=0956-7976

Source: Northwestern University (news : web)

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4.3 / 5 (3) Jun 26, 2009
"People who selected themselves as nonsexist in one study, for example, tended to choose a man for a job over a woman who was a little less qualified. "In that case, when they affirmed to themselves that they were nonsexist, they were more likely to attribute their decisions to external causes rather than to sexism.""

So it would be non-sexist to choose the lesser qualified candidate based on gender?
3 / 5 (2) Jun 26, 2009
Interesting and I'm leaning toward accepting the hypothesis. But the experiment doesn't really convince me as being rigorous enough because morality is such a strong yet subjective thing that governs one's entire life. These experiments simply couldn't encompass such a large scope.
not rated yet Jun 27, 2009
I wonder if the study group considered that many people who give to charities make very considered choices every year, give to them, and then decline on principle to respond to further offhand solicitations.
3 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2009

Perhaps this is but another example of Buddha's saying that opposites coexist.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
3 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2009
First of all, what does one consider as a "saint"?

As a Christian, one of hte most fundamental things I recognize about morality is that human beings cannot live up to any moral standard. We cannot even live up to our own standards, much less God's standards.

In Genesis 6:5, we are told that every imagination of man's heart is only evil continually, thus it is not surprising to me at all that "saints" sin all the time, the Bible makes no attempt to gloss over that fact, and is, in part, written to prove this fact to anyone naive enough to think otherwise. See also Romans chapter 7. "The good which I would do, I do not. The evil which I would not do, I do..." This is the sin nature, and even the most righteous and moral and Godly person alive, whoever that may be, at times finds himself subject to it, particularly if they start being motivated by self justification.

The typical trap is the guy who preaches against the "surface problems" of adultery or other sexual immorality. Though he may be correct in what he teaches, yet he turns to God and justifies himself based on his "good works" of having not cheated on his spouse, or having not committed any physical act fornication or adultery of any kind. Yet this act of self justification does not actually justify him in any fashion before God or man. (see Jesus parable about the pharisee who thanked God that he wasn't an adulterer or a publican, or other "immoral" persons, etc).

What happens with such a person is they are what God says about them (i.e. everyone is evil,) and are instead saying, "hey, at least I'm not as bad as so and so..." Well, this self justification is itself a sin, and is basicly calling God a liar. Once this decision is made, it is like eating the forbidden fruit all over again. The person can do nothing but fall further away, even though they claimed their intention was to do good.

In reality, anyone who gives to charity merely as some sort of attempt to "balance" the good or evil they have done, is in fact, not doing "good" at all, because they still did so for a selfish reason: self justification.

That is, if your reason for giving to charity is because it makes you feel better about yourself, whether consciously or unconsciously, then your donation is itself an act of selfishness, even IF you have no outward self serving motivation to do so. That is, even if it has nothing to do with the applause or attention of others, if you are giving simply to make yourself feel better or for what you think are "brownie points" with some moral system or with God, then you are still doing evil, namely in the form of self justification or self righteousness.

Even if you manage to give with 100% perfect intentions, good deeds do not "offset" evil deeds. Morality and good deeds are not some sort of currency to be spent with God or man, though men often view it as such.

As a christian, I can unashamedly say that any "brownie points" from good deeds I may have done, such as donating to charity or church or even a stranger on the street, cannot possibly make up for the sins I have committed, even especially relatively recently.

This doesn't make me a hypocrite, though admittedly, I am one, but not for this reason. :)

I'm a sinner, that's why I need a savior.

Both Christians and unbelievers often view heaven and hell as little more than "reward" and "punishment" for faith or lack thereof, or even catasrophically for good deeds or lack thereof. Many creationists including even the majority of professing Chrisitans, have a faulty notion of "goodness" whereby they incorrectly believe that if they do "enough" good that it somehow makes them a "good" person, in spite of however much evil they may have done. This is a faulty notion which all of us have likely adhered to at one time or another. Thus, among many Christians, Christ is reduced to a mere, "get out of hell free card," as they often have not given any of this honest thought, nor especially actually bothered to read their Bibles, or for that matter, study humanity directly.

This cannot be the whole story though.

In the greater scheme of things, the "reward" for a good deed is irrelevant. Oh, it is nice and greatly appreciated, especially in the resurrection, I'm sure, but neither reward nor guilt nor even conviction should be necessary or even relevant to moral decisions.

The fact is, if we were all inherently "good" as psychologists often claim, then we would do what is right even without reward, because it is the right thing to do. The fact that we usually need an extra reward to do what is right, and often don't do right even when presented with a reward for doing so, AND on top of that, negative consequences for doing evil, proves mankind is inherently evil, and indeed, even seems to prefer it that way.


All saints are rooted in sin, and certainly before salvation.

"Christ died for sinners, of whom I am chief."
"All have sinned and come short of the glory of God."

and from Isaiah
"All our righteousnesses(i.e. the good things we do,) are as filthy rags(Hebrew implies menstruous cloth)".

Anyway, this article is essentially about two of the most important FALSE doctrines in the history of humanity: Self Justification by works, and also "license to sin" i.e. "brownie point system".

Either way, it is still just as rotten as Isaiah's example of a menstrous cloth.

The only solution is the Biblical one, i.e. "Deny yourself and take up the cross daily and follow Jesus." As Jesus is the only person who has ever lived a sinless life, in our stead, and has suffered all consequence and death in our stead.

In John 15:5 Christ says that witout him we can do nothing, so then to anyone who claims to be a "Saint", it should be obvious that even if they in fact have good motivations, they cannot actually do "good" except that God himself does it through them.

Both Christians and unbelievers have a clearly wrong interpretation of what "Sainthood" (the biblical term, not the corporate church organization term,) actually means.

Christians are not perfect. Anyone who even remotely starts to think of themself as a "good" person is starting to depart from the true Christianity which is taught in the Bible. Nevertheless, as we see in Romans 6:1-3, 15-16, neither salvation nor any past "good" deeds give us a "license" to commit immoral acts. i.e. "What shall we say then, shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid, how shall we who are dead unto sin live any longer therein?"

So then, the notion that a person can call themself a Christian, call themself a "Saint," and yet indefinitely and habitually live any old way they please because "Jesus died for me," is totally and completely bogus, and such a person has likely never been a true Christian i.e. "Saint" to begin with.
not rated yet Jul 03, 2009
"Moderation in all things". Wonder what would have happened if they had solicited a much larger charitable donation?

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