This year has seen a number of scandals in the humanitarian sector come to light – from Oxfam to a high-profile aid-worker in Nepal. What’s common in all these stories is that the accused workers, who seemingly strive to selflessly help the world’s less-fortunate, are hiding a much darker reality below the surface. 

The media has portrayed these cases as ones of cold-hearted predators who worked for non-profits as ruses for earning the trust of the community in order to get close to the people they would later abuse. However, the research that I and others have been doing for more than a decade suggests a far less conscious, calculated predatorial story. Rather, it suggests that these may be cases of psychological phenomena known as “moral compensation” and “moral licensing”. People want to see themselves as moral individuals, and therefore, in order to maintain this moral self-image they will follow an oscillating pattern of moral and immoral actions in order to maintain a sort of “moral equilibrium” – continuing to prove to themselves that they are good, moral beings. 

For example, in some of my studies, my collaborators and I have found that after donating to charity, people are more likely to cheat on a test. Or when recalling something they just did to harm someone, will then help someone else. But the reverse also proves to be true: when recognized for something moral they have just done, they then feel licensed to do something a bit less moral and yet still maintain their moral self-images. Individuals behave in such a consistently inconsistent pattern as a way that their initial stimulating moral action either licenses their later immoral behavior or that seeks to cleanse their past wrongs. And perhaps unsurprisingly, this compensation seems to correspond in magnitude; doing something a little bad instigates a minor cleansing behavior. But doing something very bad stimulates a far more extreme cleansing (and vice versa). We have found that this phenomena has little to do with how external people view the actor; the research suggests that even if others don’t acknowledge the initial moral or immoral action, people still compensate by following it with a behavior of similar magnitude in the opposite direction. It is as if people are merely striving to keep their own personal moral balance sheet intact. 

Thus, it is possible that these abusers did not establish themselves as such charitable fixtures of the communities they were working in in order to consciously gain access to the children they would later exploit. But instead, that their extreme charitable and self-sacrificial behavior was done in response to a need to cleanse themselves from the depraved actions they were engaging in. In other words, in order to self-justify their deplorable behavior, they engaged in extreme charity in order to convince themselves that they are really “not that bad” – and in fact, maybe even quite good human beings. It could also be that the praise and recognition they received from others morally “condoned” them to act in such morally deplorable ways. Or both; that is, in a sort of vicious cycle in which the moral behavior licensed the immoral, and then vice versa, keeping the cycle of abuse and aid ongoing. 

What implications does this have for the non-for-profit world? First, it suggests that perhaps the moral praise that we shower on aid workers might lead to unintended insidious consequences. In other words, the admiration that we show to these people, which in most cases is fully deserved, might contribute to the sense of “licensing” to act immorally or contribute to the feeling of being cleansed if they did participate in immoral behavior. This is a double-edged sword in the sense that people who contribute their lives to helping others, often with very little material compensation, should receive all the praise, accolades, and recognition that they do. But on the other edge, such approbation may contribute to feeling released to engage in immoral actions. Second, it suggests that aid institutions need to pay greater attention to the mental health of their own workers. Some humanitarian organizations often put relatively little, if any, resources into ensuring the mental well-being of their own workers, as their meager budgets are often directed to providing aid externally. But situations like these beg the question if greater resources are needed for the monitoring and assistance of internal workers in order to prevent such tragic situations like these from occurring in the future. 

The greatest tragedy in such situations are the people who were abused. There is no question. But a collateral damage is the downstream effects they have on the entire aid community. Just like how the world looked at all priests following the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, the world is now also more likely to look at aid workers a bit askance – to question their motivates and wonder if something more sinister may be lurking beneath the surface. On some level this additional skepticism may be healthy; at the end of the day, the most important objective is to protect the vulnerable individuals who are involved. But in a world where aid is needed now more than ever, it saddens me that cases like these will naturally make the public look at those who provide it with less trust and more skepticism. And unlike the Catholic Church, which chose to confront the systemic abuse largely on their own, one would hope that the humanitarian organizations that are dealing with abuse are wise and open enough to welcome in external assistance and monitoring.

Jennifer Jordan is a social psychologist and is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD.