Moral Licensing: Willpower’s Ironic Indulgence


McDonald’s has uncovered something interesting about willpower…

Consumer groups have long criticized the fast food chain for its unhealthy US menu. Finally, around 2003, McDonald’s added salads to its offerings. Surprisingly, including healthy options has increased sales of the company’s least healthy items. Researchers have followed up with their own study and have confirmed the findings as well. Adding a salad to the menu has caused study respondents to indulge in the most unhealthy menu selections. The subjects did not even have to buy the salad, but consider buying it. Also, the effect for was higher for individuals with greater willpower.

Why would adding a salad to the menu change choices?

Welcome to the perverted world of moral licensing. Every time we exercise self-control and resist temptation, our self-esteem goes up. This bump in self-esteem makes us more vulnerable to future impulses. We are less likely to use the willpower to resist them. Think of it as an ironic indulgence.

So if you want to strengthen your willpower, you have to avoid moral licensing.

To understand the effect, we have to understand how willpower works. Every time we see a temptation, we focus on our long-term goal that conflicts with the temptation. We use this relationship between temptation and long-term goal as a way to control our impulses. That’s why, when you see a cheesecake, you think about calories and diet. Yet, if you remember that you ate a salad for lunch. Or even see a salad (as McDonald’s has discovered), your mind decides that you have satisfied your long-term goal. And you will eat the cheesecake. After all, you deserved it. You are doing something bad because you’ve been good.

Moral licensing is pervasive.

There was a spike in racism after Obama’s election victory. Some Americans felt that since they live in the country where a black president won, they could not be racist by definition. Even if they did not vote for Obama. No matter what they said or posted on the Internet.

People who take vitamins are less likely to go to the gym. People who merely planned doing something charitable are more likely to buy luxury products. Consumers who bought energy-efficient products increased their energy usage. Thinking about exercise makes people to eat more.

Moral licensing is one of the reasons why public figures with high moral credentials get caught in ironic sex scandals (1). There are plenty of examples.

Ted Haggard was a pastor of the New Life Church (known for its anti-gay views) and a president of National Association of Evangelicals. Haggard admitted using services of a male prostitute for 3 years. The prostitute also provided him with meth amphetamines.

Mark Foley, member of the US House of Representatives, and a chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, was one of the biggest opponents of child pornography. He got caught sending suggestive emails and sexually explicit instant messages to teenage boys.

And the list goes on…

Certain situations promote moral licensing…

Tracking progress towards our goals exposes us to moral licensing. This is what psychologists call goal liberation. One would think that making progress on our goals would make us to pursue them even more. That’s not what research has found so far. (Most of the examples are from Willpower Instinct)

Reminding us of what we’ve accomplished makes us to engage in self-sabotaging behavior. For example, when dieters were reminded of the pounds they lost, they were more likely to eat less healthy. That is a one reason why diets don’t work. Once you achieve your goal, what else is there? A better goal would be viewing yourself as an active and health conscious person, rather than someone who just shed 15 pounds.

To make progress motivating (and to prevent moral licensing) you have to view your progress as a sign of how committed you are to the goal. One way to do this is to re-frame the question. Instead of thinking how far you have you progressed, remember why you chose to pursue the goal in the first place. This re-framing will turn a reward into a threat and redirect you toward your goal again.

Halo effect

In the US, people order diet Coke with cheeseburger and fries. Americans think that diet Coke will somehow negate the (unhealthy) impact of fast food.

Because diet drinks don’t have any calories, consumers associate them with health. In other words, diet drinks have a positive halo effect. The halo effect is a type of confirmation bias. We view a characteristic (low calorie content of a drink) positively. We think the positive effect of the diet drink will cancel the negative effect of fast food.

Marketers are the biggest users of halo effect. That’s why they display “fat free”, “only 100 calories”, “gluten free”, “organic”, “natural”, “free range” labels on the boxes. That’s why grocery stores display savings on the receipt. This way you know how much you saved and can feel good about yourself.

So whenever you buy a product with a label, ask yourself, is it working?

Promising to be good… tomorrow

In one study, people had a choice between a cookie and fat-free yogurt. The respondents were twice more likely to choose the cookie when they were told they would have to choose between the same 2 options next week.

Why would adding a time dimension change respondents’ decisions? Because study subjects believed that the next time they would make a healthier choice. In fact, 67% of the study participants thought they would make the healthier choice the next week, but only 37% of returning respondents actually did.

We have an unrealistic belief that our tomorrow choices will be different from our choices today. This is common and, yet remarkably, wrong assumption. We all tell ourselves this is the last cigarette. Or I’ll go to gym tomorrow, just to repeat the same choice next time.

That’s why New Year resolutions fail. That’s why buying gym equipment wont make us fitter. If we want to change, we have to stop telling ourselves the bullshit about tomorrow and actually do it. Excuses about tomorrow are licensing us to sin today, without changing our behavior in any meaningful way.

There’s an interesting way to mitigate this effect. It boils down to reducing the variability of unwanted behavior. Promises to reduce unwanted behavior tomorrow make us do more of that behavior today. So the reduction in the variability of unwanted behavior neutralizes the impact of moral licensing.

Studies show that people who smoke the same number of cigarettes everyday gradually decrease the overall number of cigarettes. Even if they were not trying to quit smoking.

By analogy, working out on the same days of the week should make you more successful in keeping up with your fitness goals. This way, you would not engage in “I will work out tomorrow” type of behavior.

Finally, the ultimate way to handle moral licensing is remembering that achieving goals is not about morality, but commitment. So instead of seeing eating as a reward for working out, or spending as a reward for saving, we should see both of them as a part of one goal, such as a healthy lifestyle or frugal living.

(1) Roy F. Baumeister argues that decision fatigue can be used to explain moral lapses in actions of public figures (i.e. stressful job depletes their willpower and as a result politicians and other public figures can not resist temptations). While probable, this does not explain why some officials tend to make some choices privately while arguing against the same choices publicly. Moral licensing explains these choices.

  1. Willpower Instinct <–Buy this book
  2. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
  3. Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad
No Comments