Rose Ferguson

Date of Submission



Theories of moral identity assert that people are motivated to maintain positive self-perceptions of themselves as good, moral people (e.g., Aquino & Reed, 2002; Blasi, 1980, 1984). However, research in sequential moral behaviour has found that people do not necessarily act in a manner consistent with this self-perception. Moral balancing (moral licensing and moral compensation) refers to patterns of behaviour in which people alternate between morally positive and negative actions. This has been proposed to represent a strategy to balance competing goals to maintain positive moral self-perceptions whilst also reaping the short-term rewards of immoral behaviour (e.g., Nisan, 1990; Merrit, Effron, & Monin, 2010; Mullen & Monin, 2016). Demonstrations of moral balancing are widespread in the literature, however little is known about the mechanisms that drive these effects. The theoretical explanations that have been proposed are primarily post-hoc in nature, and little research has been conducted to directly examine the assumptions underlying these accounts. In this thesis, I directly tested one theoretical model proposed to explain moral balancing: moral credits. This model proposes that moral balancing is driven by changes in moral self-image. Across four empirical studies (Study 1a, 1b, 2a and 2b), I tested a series of predictions derived from this model and the proposed central mechanism. The results failed to provide support for these predictions - despite using experimental manipulations common to the field, the moral balancing effect was not replicated in any of these studies. Consequently, I conducted two large-scale meta-analyses of sequential moral behaviour studies to (a) identify the conditions under which moral balancing does and does not occur, and (b) examine whether the predictions of the moral credits model align with the pattern of results observed across the literature. The results of the meta-analyses did not support predictions of the moral credits, or of alternative models of sequential moral behaviour (e.g., moral credentials, self-perception theory, guilt). The results suggest that existing theoretical accounts cannot adequately explain the mechanisms that drive these effects, or the conditions under which they occur. In light of this, I argue that a new approach to the study of sequential moral decision-making is warranted. I argue that an approach grounded in the principles of non-moral decision-making and self-control may represent a promising way forward for the study of moral decision-making. This new approach represents a more parsimonious approach to explaining sequential moral behaviour effects using a single mechanism (valuation processes), and provides potential strategies for facilitating moral decision-making using techniques from non-moral self-control research. I outline the parallels between moral and non-moral decision-making, and discuss the strengths and limitations of this approach. Finally, I present avenues for future research to test the influence of valuation processes in sequential moral behaviour studies.


School of Behavioural and Health Sciences

Document Type


Access Rights

Open Access


377 pages

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Faculty of Health Sciences