Moral Accounting: How Consumers Spend Money Tainted by Guilt

62 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2012 Last revised: 28 Feb 2019

See all articles by Hyun Young Park

Hyun Young Park

China Europe International Business School (CEIBS)

Tom Meyvis

New York University (NYU) - Department of Marketing

Date Written: February 1, 2019


Given the prevalence of bounded morality and possibly tainted financial gains, this research examines how feeling guilty about money changes consumer spending. Extending the research on mental and emotional accounting, we propose that consumers also engage in “moral accounting”: consumers spend money differently depending on the moral nature of the emotion (i.e., guilt) associated with the money. We show that tainting money with moral guilt resulting from a moral violation increases pro-social spending, whereas tainting money with self-control guilt elicited from a personal self-control failure increases self-improvement spending. Moreover, this effect of moral guilt (but not of self-control guilt) is magnified by consumers’ self-importance of moral identity—confirming the moral nature of guilt as the driving factor underlying the differential guilt effects. We further find that moral guilt can be bound to money, leading to a pre-occupation with cleansing the money by spending some of it pro-socially, rather than engaging in other activities that could more effectively reinforce their moral identity (i.e., volunteering time). These results suggest that associating moral guilt with money—and focusing on that money instead of its moral implications for the self—acts as a proactive self-protection (vs. reactive self-repair) strategy against a self-threat.

Keywords: moral emotions, emotional accounting, guilt, anger, spending decisions, morality, moral cleansing, money cleansing, money laundering

JEL Classification: M31

Suggested Citation

Park, Hyun Young and Meyvis, Tom, Moral Accounting: How Consumers Spend Money Tainted by Guilt (February 1, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Hyun Young Park (Contact Author)

China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) ( email )

Shanghai-Hongfeng Road
Shanghai 201206
Shanghai 201206

Tom Meyvis

New York University (NYU) - Department of Marketing ( email )

Henry Kaufman Ctr
44 W 4 St.
New York, NY
United States

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