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Self-Esteem, Moral Capital, and Wrongdoing

45 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2008  

Ernesto Dal Bo

University of California, Berkeley - Haas School of Business - Business and Public Policy

Marko Terviö

Aalto University

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: January 31, 2008


In order to help understand adherence to moral standards and the force of intrinsic motivation, we present an infinite-horizon model where an individual receives random temptations (such as bribe offers) and must decide which to resist. Temptations yield consumption value, but keeping a good self-image (a high belief of being the type of person that resists) yields self-esteem. Individual actions depend both on types and intent, so selecting a good intent does not guarantee good behavior and past resistance is informative of a good type. We identify conditions for individuals to build an introspective reputation for goodness ("moral capital") and for good actions to lead to a stronger disposition to do good. Bad actions destroy moral capital and lock-in further wrongdoing. Economic shocks that result in higher temptations have persistent effects on wrongdoing that fade only as new generations replace the shocked cohorts. Societies with the same moral fundamentals may display different wrongdoing rates depending on how much past luck has polarized the distribution of individual beliefs. The model helps rationalize taboos, harsher punishment of repeat offenders, and a tendency of individuals with low moral capital to enter high-temptation activities.

Keywords: Keywords: moral capital, intrinsic motivation, wrongdoing, moral costs, self-esteem, corruption, crime

JEL Classification: D83,D91, K4, Z13

Suggested Citation

Dal Bo, Ernesto and Terviö, Marko, Self-Esteem, Moral Capital, and Wrongdoing (January 31, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Ernesto Dal Bo

University of California, Berkeley - Haas School of Business - Business and Public Policy ( email )

Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

Marko Terviö (Contact Author)

Aalto University ( email )

P.O. Box 21240
Helsinki, 00101


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