Moral Licensing: Evidence from a field study

Research Highlights

- We conducted a field study with 154 apartments investigating side effects of an environmental campaign

- Study participants exposed to the water conservation campaign increased their electricity consumption relative to the control group



Isolated environmental campaigns focusing on defined target behaviors are rolled out to millions of households every year. Yet it is still unclear whether these programs trigger cross-domain adoption of additional environment-friendly behaviors (positive spillover) or reduced engagement elsewhere. A thorough evaluation of the real net performance of these programs is lacking. This project investigates whether positive or perverse side effects dominate by exemplifying the impact of a water conservation campaign on electricity consumption.



The study draws on daily water (10,780 data points) and weekly electricity (1,386 data points) consumption data of 154 apartments in a controlled field experiment at a multifamily residence.



Residents who received weekly feedback on their water consumption lowered their water use (6.0% on average), but at the same time increased their electricity consumption by 5.6% compared with control subjects. Income effects can be excluded. While follow-up research is needed on the precise mechanism of the psychological process at work, the findings are consistent with the concept of moral licensing, which can more than offset the benefits of focused energy efficiency campaigns, at least in the short-term.


Selected publications

Tiefenbeck, V., Staake, T., Roth, K., Sachs, O. (2013), For better or for worse? Em­pirical evidence of moral licensing in a behavioral energy conservation cam­paign. Energy Policy 57, pp. 160-171


Verena Tiefenbeck, Thorsten Staake

Partners: Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems, Corcoran Management Company (property management)


All projects on Behavioral Interventions

 Overcoming Salience Bias: The Power of Real-Time Feedback at the Point of Use

 Energy Conservation in the Absence of Volunteer Selection Bias and Monetary Incentives

Feedback, Fast and Slow: Effect of Live vs. Outcome Feedback


Moral Licensing: Evidence from a Field Study


Adoption and Usage: Consumer Interaction with Green IS 


Hand hygiene in Kindergartens: Understanding the effect of live feedback on hand washing behavior


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