Did you know that having the option of nutritious foods at a fast food restaurant can make it more likely for you to get fries and a burger?
Or that you’re likely to underestimate the number of calories in a meal or snack if you think some part of it is healthy or good? Like if the Oreos are organic, or the lasagna comes with a salad?
I didn’t know any of that until reading The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal.
And it all comes down to something called moral licensing.
What is moral licensing?
Moral licensing comes with placing judgment on activities or things by saying they’re good or bad. Then you think of yourself as good or bad, based on what you do.
But the real catch comes when you feel good about yourself for doing something good, because that can make you feel like you’re now entitled to do something bad.
Except you think of it as a reward or treat for the good thing you did – you don’t view yourself as bad.
What’s interesting is that the activities don’t have to be related to each other. For example, if someone brings reusable bags to the grocery store, they might then buy ice cream as a treat – even though they probably wouldn’t have bought the ice cream if they left their bags at home.
The stranger part is that you don’t even need to act. Simply thinking about making a good decision can lead you to rewarding yourself.
This goes back to the fast food menu. Even considering the healthy option can give you such a good feeling that you treat yourself with something else altogether.
Then there’s a part called the “halo effect,” where one good element of something can make you ignore any of the “bad” parts.
That’s where the organic Oreos come up – you feel like eating them is good because they’re organic, so you underestimate the fact that they’re still Oreos and have a lot of calories.
Why saying “it’s for your own good” backfires
Sometimes when you do the “bad” thing, you feel out of control. But not with this. With moral licensing, you feel like you’re in control of an indulgence.
You’re choosing to have ice cream because you were so good. You’re not out of control. You simply deserve a treat or earned the reward.
Does that language sound familiar? It does to me. It reminds me how easy it is to rationalize choices.
But as McGonigal notes, “When you feel like a saint, the idea of self-indulgence doesn’t feel wrong. It feels right. Like you earned it. And if the only thing motivating your self-control is the desire to be a good enough person, you’re going to give in whenever you’re already feeling good about yourself.” (p. 86)
This desire to be a good person has one other consequence. “When you define a willpower challenge as something you should do to be a better person, you will come up with arguments for why you shouldn’t have to do it. It’s just human nature – we resist rules imposed by others for our own good.” (p. 86 – emphasis added)
Let that sink in for a moment.
If you’ve ever rebelled against someone telling you to do something “for your own good,” it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It doesn’t make you a bad person.
It makes you human.
Even more, this rebellion doesn’t have to be against someone else. It can also happen if you try to frame things to yourself in terms of good and bad. You’ll find ways to rationalize and reassure yourself that you’re already a good person. You don’t need to do this other thing to prove it.
I wish I’d known about this in my younger years! It might have saved me a lot of angst.
Decide what kind of person you are
One of the other fascinating aspects of all this is how it reflects the kind of person we think we are.
Turns out that much of the time, people counteract their earlier “good” with a “bad” if they think of themselves as the kind of person who wants to be bad.
“From this point of view, every act of self-control is a punishment, and only self-indulgence is a reward.” (p. 104)
But what if you believe the opposite? When you see yourself as the person who wants to do the right thing? Not because someone told you to, but because it’s in line with your core values?
This is the best way to avoid moral licensing.
From an eating perspective, this would mean being the kind of person who makes mindful choices about food because you want to. You want to feel good in your body and eat in a way that helps you do that.
This includes being mindful of rewards.
And to be clear, I’m not suggesting you should never treat yourself. Rather, consider what’s making you feel like you need a treat, and also what form it takes. Enjoying a relaxing bath or some leisure reading is vastly different than a shopping spree you can’t afford or an impulse buy at the grocery store you later regret.
3 tips to help avoid this trap
It’s one thing to know this is how your brain works. It’s another thing to try to avoid it.
Here are some tips to help:
Awareness: Start observing yourself to see if you can identify any instances where you do this. Do you do something virtuous (however you define that) and then use it as an opportunity for a “sinful” reward? Or does even thinking about doing something “good” encourage you to reach for a treat?
Remove judgment: This is something we talk a lot about with mindful eating, that it’s important not to classify food as good or bad. But knowing about moral licensing makes it even more important. As McGonigal writes, “Cheating on your taxes or your spouse may be morally wrong, but cheating on your diet is not a mortal sin.” (p. 87) Take a step back and focus on what truly deserves judgment.
Focus on your values: Remember what kind of person you want to be, and how your actions can support your values. It’s not about doing the “good” thing because we feel like it will make us a good person. McGonigal writes, “Moving beyond the traps of moral licensing requires knowing that who we are is the self that wants the best for us.” (p. 104)
Moving beyond good and bad
Clearly placing moral values on eating and food can backfire. Have you noticed this for yourself, with food or other areas of your life? Are there times when you’ve been able to move beyond it?
I’ve certainly experienced some of this, but I’m going to be on the lookout for more examples of it in my own life. I’ll let you know if I find anything interesting.