Happy Halloween? Transforming from an ethical leader to an abusive leader is just a change overnight.

"Today is my cheat day. I have been very selective on my diet, and I’ve been monitoring the calories of every single bite for almost a week. I deserve the fries and cupcakes, at least!” Does this sound familiar? We may have the belief that people who do right things will always do things righteously and ethically. But this is not the case.

Psychologist Paul Piff at University of California, Berkeley, found that people who drive Prii — the signature environmentally friendly vehicles — are the same ones most likely to cut off a pedestrian waiting at the crosswalk [1]. The rationale behind this phenomenon is that people expect themselves to sustain a certain degree of ethical self-regard. When you reach and go beyond the bar, your mind unconsciously frees yourself from other moral constraints. As the result, you give yourself a break when being unethical later on. Therefore, let’s go back to the Prius example: Driving an environmentally friendly car is an ethical conduct that liberates people to engage in something unethical, such as cutting off a pedestrian.

The effect that past moral behavior makes people more likely to do morally questionable things is called moral licensing. The effect of moral licensing is not limited to driving behaviors. Previous research also found this effect in making donations and a willingness to cooperate to protect the environment [2] as well as with CEOs’ decisions of adhering to corporate social responsibility practices [3].

With moral licensing being so powerful, what does it do to leaders? Researchers argue that being an ethical leader (such as treating followers fairly and monitoring followers’ unethical behaviors) fatigues yet entitles one to become corrupt. Based on two experience sampling studies1 with more than 500 participants, research found that an ethical leader today can easily transform into an abusive leader tomorrow [4].  The constant self-regulations deplete an individual’s resources to maintain ethical behavior all the time. On the other hand, moral endeavors create a feeling of leverage; the evil can be cancelled out because of the previous good. The senses of fatigue and getting away with doing the wrong thing combined can turn an ethical leader into an abusive leader.

It can be exhausting to always live up to a superior behavioral standard. While we all praise ethical endeavors, there may be a price to pay for it. However, this is not suggesting that we should stop being ethical. On the contrary, research findings are meant to remind us to avoid being trapped with moral licensing; we need to be self-aware!

Note 1:

Experience sampling research is designed to investigate people’s daily experiences, thoughts and feelings throughout the day. Participants will respond to the same questionnaire multiple times either within a day or for multiple days consecutively. The research cited in this post involved participants  filling out the survey three times in two days: one in an afternoon, the other in the next morning and the third  the following afternoon.


  1. Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(11), 4086-4091.
  2. Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. L. (2009). Sinning saints and saintly sinners: The paradox of moral self-regulation. Psychological science, 20(4), 523-528.
  3. Ormiston, M. E., & Wong, E. M. (2013). License to ill: The effects of corporate social responsibility and CEO moral identity on corporate social irresponsibility. Personnel Psychology, 66(4), 861-893.
  4. Lin, S. H. J., Ma, J., & Johnson, R. E. (2016). When ethical leader behavior breaks bad: How ethical leader behavior can turn abusive via ego depletion and moral licensing. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(6), 815-830.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.