Why You Need to Overcome Moral Licensing

What is Moral Licensing?

Have you ever been on a diet, eaten really healthy for breakfast and lunch plus worked out in the morning, so you reward yourself for “being good” by having a big piece of cake with dinner? Or maybe you accomplished more than expected on a project at work in the morning, so you decide that you “deserve” to "take it easy” in the afternoon. Sound familiar? This kind of behavior is what’s known as moral licensing.


While there’s nothing inherently wrong with rewarding yourself for good behavior, moral licensing can actually sabotage your success if done frequently. Fortunately, you can learn to recognize when you’re indulging in moral licensing and how to avoid it. Today I’m going to show you how.

Before we dive into the ways to counteract moral licensing, I should first explain what exactly it is and the different ways it can manifest in your life, because it’s not always as obvious as you might think.

How do you see yourself?

We all have an image of ourselves in our minds. It’s a general representation of the kind of person you think you are and desire to be. That image includes things like the physical, emotional, social, spiritual, charitable and intellectual images that you project to the world. This image can (and does) change as you age, mature, learn new things, and get exposed to new ideas.

When you’re faced with a decision and you ask yourself “am I the kind of person who…”, that’s your way of trying to determine whether the behavior you’re considering aligns with your self image. This is a perfectly normal and rational thought process. Note that you don’t always ask yourself that question explicitly, but that is the basic question you are trying to answer when faced with decisions that don’t [appear to] align with your self image.

So why do we do it?

You have a strong psychological need to preserve your self image, and your decisions are subconsciously (and often even consciously) influenced by your self-image “score” at the time. Where you get into trouble, and where moral licensing comes into play, is when you erroneously conflate self control and willpower with morality. The reality is that those things often have very little or even nothing to do with each other.

For example, splurging on unnecessary “luxuries” like a nice pair of shoes or a new car is often viewed as “wrong”. While buying those shoes may be “wrong” in the sense that doing so will slow your progress toward your stated goal of saving more for retirement, there’s nothing inherently wrong with purchasing a pair of shoes. But if you’ve ever debated with yourself over whether you “should” or “should not” buy something, there’s at least an element of morality implied by that question.

If moral licensing only influenced your behavior one direction, for example in convincing you to not buy those shoes, it may not be such a bad thing. Unfortunately, however, sometimes you decide that you deserve to have those shoes because you were a few dollars under your clothing budget last month. The problem is, when you go over your clothing budget next month, you don’t usually feel the same obligation to offset it by spending less next month.

What's really going on?

It’s important to note that your brain doesn’t seek perfection when it comes to your self image. It just wants to make sure you "stay in your lane”. Essentially, you allow your self-image score to fluctuate around your ideal, either positive or negatively. As long as you’re within that range, you generally feel good about yourself. And the way your brain makes sure you stay within your lane is to basically keep track of your “good” and “bad” deeds.

To use an accounting analogy, it records your actions in a behavior ledger, where you get “credit” for doing “good” things. So then, when you have a positive balance in your self-image “account" and you're given the opportunity to do something “bad”, you feel justified in doing so, because you’re just balancing things out.

This is the classic, quid pro quo kind of moral licensing, where you give yourself permission to do something “bad" because you did something “good”. It’s what most people think of when they learn what moral licensing is. For example, when you give a gift, you feel like you deserve one in return. So when you donate a few dollars to that charity soliciting donations outside the mall, you’re more likely to treat yourself to an unplanned purchase when you go inside.

There's more to the story

Moral licensing is subtle, though, and can show up in some unexpected ways too. You don’t even have to do anything to elicit the reciprocation response; it can happen by just thinking about something. A study by Sonya Sachdeva, Rumen Iliev, and Douglas L. Medin of Northwestern University, showed how moral licensing can make you comfortable saying no to doing something “good”. In this study, participants were instructed to write a story about themselves using a set of words that included either positive or negative character traits, and a control group with neutral words, describing how those words applied to them.

After they completed that task, they were then asked whether they would be willing to donate money to a charity of their choosing. Those who described themselves with positive character traits donated only 39% of what people in the control group donated, and only 20% of what the people in the unfavorable story group donated. It seems that this “demonstration” of your generosity bolsters your self image, thereby eliminating the need to do something that’s actually generous.

A similar example of head-scratching “logic” exists when you simply could have done something “bad”, but didn’t. A classic example of this is described in the book The Willpower Instinct, by author and Stanford University professor Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. When McDonald’s first introduced salads to its menu, sales of Big Macs increased significantly.

How does that happen?

Researchers at Baruch College in New York wanted to figure out why. To do so, they designed an experiment with a mock fast-food restaurant that had two different versions of the menu. One menu had the standard fast-food options, while the other also included a salad. Their results mirrored the real-life results that McDonald’s experienced. On the menu with the salad, study participants were more likely to purchase the least healthy item on the menu.

They also did an analysis of vending machine sales and found that, when a low-calorie item is included as one of the choices for purchase, people are more likely to buy the highest-calorie item in the machine than when no such “healthy” option exists. In this case, it appears that your brain takes credit for something you might do, in this case make a healthy meal choice, just because you thought about doing it.

The reason we do this is because we expect our future selves to exercise better judgment and more self control than our current, impulsive selves, so we promise that we’ll make that healthy choice...next time. This behavior let’s you maintain your self image of a person who makes healthy eating choices, by telling yourself that you’ll balance out today’s “bad” behavior by making a “good" choice next time. It’s the same idea as racking up credit card debt. You satisfy your current, impulsive desire and push the consequences off onto future you. This is a problem known as future-self continuity, which I’ve discussed in another post.

In a study by Benoît Monin and Dale T. Miller of Princeton University, they found that moral licensing even extends to prejudicial behavior. They found that people were more likely to favor a man over a better-qualified minority candidate for a job opening that is stereotypically-male after being given the opportunity to disagree with blatantly sexist statements. They found the same effect when the participants were given the opportunity to first select a minority candidate for a job opening that is stereotypically neutral.

Another interesting quirk of moral licensing is that the “immoral” behavior doesn’t even need to be in the same domain as the “moral” behavior. For example, in a study conducted by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto, people who purchased an environmentally-friendly product subsequently cheated more on a test where they were paid for the number of questions they answered correctly. So when you do a good deed for a random stranger, that means you’re more likely tell yourself it’s ok to skip your workout today.

So, what am I supposed to do about it?

So how do you avoid moral licensing? It’s important that you don’t frame your behaviors in terms of morality, i.e. being “good” or “bad” (unless, of course, it actually is an immoral behavior). If you do, you're setting yourself up to fail, because your brain is always looking for an excuse to balance the self-image ledger. Instead, think about your behavior in the context of the relevant goal that it affects.

So, if you do something “good” like resisting that slice of pizza for lunch, interpret it as an indication that you’re committed to your weight-loss goal, not as an sign that you are “good". Looking at your actions this way reframes your perspective. When you think about your behavior in terms of things you should or shouldn’t do, your subconscious mind resists being told what to do and uses it to justify the opposite behavior. However, when you frame it in terms of your goal commitment, you’re more likely to be motivated to continue the same kind of behavior, because it aligns with your values and supports your self image.

Another way to interpret your behavior or decision is in the context of your values. When you’re faced with a decision, ask yourself which choice is in alignment with your values [financial responsibility] [long-term health] [family relationships] rather than simply classifying it as a choice between “good” or “bad” options.

Here's the catch, though

There is one very important aspect of counteracting moral licensing that remains unresolved. And that is, how do you recognize when you’re in a moral licensing situation? Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. As I’ve discussed many times before, we humans are bundles of habits, operating on autopilot much of our waking lives. The problem is even more pronounced in today’s environment of endless distractions. Our minds are rarely in the same place as our bodies.

When your attention is constantly being pulled in a hundred different directions, it means you make many decisions and do many things based purely on habit, rather than conscious choice. And that means it’s much more likely that a moral licensing situation will slip by unnoticed. So, if you don’t have some kind of defense in place to help you notice those situations, you’re facing an uphill battle. Fortunately, there are a couple things you can do that can significantly increase your odds of success.

The battle against moral licensing

The primary weapon you have at your disposal is mindfulness. I won’t go into detail here, since I’ve covered this topic in a couple of other posts (Can This Simple Skill Make You Less Impulsive? and Want A Simple Way to Increase Willpower?), but mindfulness is a powerful tool to improve your awareness of what’s going on around you. Even more important is it’s effect on your awareness of what’s going on between your ears.

When you develop your mindfulness, it’s much easier to recognize a moral licensing situation as it's happening. Because so much of what you do every day is habitual, you often don’t even recognize when you’re making a decision. And when you don’t even know it’s happening, you can’t make sure that decision supports your long-term goals. Mindfulness isn’t a quick fix, meaning you won’t conquer moral licensing tomorrow (or ever, for that matter) by practicing it. However, it does work and it has dozens of other psychological and health benefits as well. So I strongly recommend at least learning more about it if you’re not sure whether it’s right for you.

The other thing you can do to improve your ability to notice moral licensing situations is to use something called priming. Again, I’m not going to discuss this topic in detail because I’ve discussed it in another post. However, the basic idea is to train your subconscious mind to recognize certain situations, so that it will flag them to your conscious mind when they come up. It’s a fascinating ability of the brain and definitely worth checking out.

I hope you found this post informative and helpful. Let me know by leaving a comment below. If you liked this post or know someone who could benefit from it, please share it with them.

  • Jamie Ball says:

    A good discussion of an interesting topic! Thank you!

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