Being Charitable May Have An Unexpected (And Unwelcome) Effect On You

By: Stephanie Pappas
Published: 11/25/2015 08:25 AM EST on LiveScience

After donating to the food pantry or toy drive this holiday season, watch yourself. Some new research suggests donations might make you temporarily more Grinch-y.

After donating to a major fundraiser in the Netherlands, participants in a new study became less interested in behaving in an environmentally friendly manner. People may feel good about themselves after acting charitably, feeling like they have a license to behave a little worse later, said study leader Marijn Meijers, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam.

“After you do something moral or laudable, you’re more likely to behave a little less laudable,” Meijers told Live Science. But the effect is small, she added, and shouldn’t discourage generosity. [7 Scientific Tips for Living a Happier Life]

License to be bad?

Psychologists debate how charitable acts influence people after the individuals have donated. Research has established that people feel good after they give, and some studies suggest this feeling snowballs on itself so that people who donate are more likely to donate again and again.

But other studies give a less optimistic picture. In some experiments, people assigned to do good for others become worse in subtle, often unrelated ways. For example, a 2013 study published in the journal Energy Policy found that people assigned to get feedback on lowering their water usage did, in fact, use less water. But they also used more electricity.

Researchers dub these unintended consequences “licensing effects,” because people seem to give themselves a license to be a little bit bad after doing something good. It’s similar to how someone might go to the gym and then feel like they’ve “earned” a candy bar, Meijers said.

But in most of the studies looking at licensing effects, participants were randomly assigned to do charitable acts —> Read More