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The self-sabotaging impulse of the licensing effect

Have you ever rewarded yourself for meeting a health or weight loss goal by eating a big calorie-rich treat?

Have you ever frugally saved money on a purchase and rewarded yourself by buying something you otherwise would not have purchased?

We all indulge ourselves in rewards from time to time even when they are utterly irrational.

Personally, I know that when I complete a difficult or labor-intensive project successfully, I have a compelling urge to partake in behaviors that aren’t good for me. I have an overwhelming feeling that “I deserve it!”

While it is important to celebrate your victories and reward yourself for good behavior and jobs well done, we need to be careful not to sabotage ourselves with rewards that are self-defeating and that un-do the benefits of our good work.

Psychologists call this the licensing effect (also self-licensing or moral licensing) and it is surprising how prevalent it is. Often it is undetected because it is driven by a subconscious impulse.

The problem isn’t that we allow ourselves indulgences on occasion, but that we justify bad behavior by mentally tying it to something positive we have done or some injustice we have suffered.

Sometimes the reward behavior is in response to something bad that happened to us. You had a bad week and need something self-gratifying to make you feel better. It may also manifest itself not as a reward, but simply a behavior that contradicts an earlier behavior. For example, an altruistic action makes us less likely to behave altruistically in the near future. That sounds counterintuitive but many studies bear it out.

Here are the results of a few of the studies:

  • People who make a green purchasing decision - or even contemplate one - are more likely to cheat when playing a game afterwards than those who did not shop green

  • Smokers who believed they took a vitamin C pill (actually a sugar pill) smoked twice as many cigarettes soon afterwards than those who did not.

  • People who buy energy or water efficient appliances use more energy or water afterwards than they did previously.

  • People who are reminded of their humanitarian qualities, will in some circumstances give less money to charity than people who aren’t similarly primed. (This is especially interesting because it wasn’t an actual behavior, just a primed belief, that caused the difference).

The common thread to all of these behaviors, regardless of the impetus, is that people are driven to betray their values and use good behavior as an excuse. So how can we avoid it, or at least reduce it so that what we do and say is more in line with our values?

I often recommend thinking of yourself as two people - the planner and the do’er, The "present you" is the planner - the one who sets goals and considers your values and priorities when making decisions. The do’er is the future you who is tasked with carrying out those best laid plans. The do’er is very susceptible to irrationality and impulsive behavior that undermines the intentions of the planner.

We need to help the do’er out. One way is to anticipate your triggers. If you have a goal or benchmark that you hope to accomplish, plan a reward for yourself ahead of time. For example, if you set a weight loss goal, incentivize yourself by promising “future you” that you will reward yourself by taking a vacation day to relax or visit a friend you need to catch up with.

Or perhaps you set a savings goal for the year. Plan that if you reach it you will allow yourself to spend X amount on a small indulgence or pre-planned purchase, but only one that will not undermine your hard-earned savings account.

Reward smart thinking and good behavior with something that feels good but is also healthy and aligns with your values - don’t betray your values just because you adhered to them once. Keep up the good work!

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

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