Moral licensing: When good habits go bad

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Have you ever found yourself not letting a car into your lane because you let another car in a few miles back?

Shoved a plastic bottle into the general waste bin as you reassure yourself you that you are someone who typically recycles?

Ignored a homeless person and then reminded yourself of your contributions to Shelter?

Eaten a whole pizza because “I ran today.”


If we’re honest, most of us will recognise ourselves here.

Psychologists refer to this pattern as ‘moral licensing.’  It means that “when people are confident that their past behavior demonstrates compassion, generosity, or a lack of prejudice, they are more likely to act in morally dubious ways” [Merrit, Effron and Monin, 2010].  Studies show that individuals who express non-racist or non-sexist views are then much more likely to go on and make racist or sexist comments – the earlier statements giving them permission to do so because they’ve already ‘proven’ their lack of prejudice.   And apparently we don’t even need to actively do or say anything ‘good’ for this to happen.  Just the mere act of imagining ourselves doing something good can create just the same effect [Khan and Dhar 2006].


Is this why dieting and exercise can make you overweight?

Ok.  Looking at all this in the context of our relationship with food and exercise is a bit of a reductive leap.  But for many of us, that relationship is a moral one – characterised by judgements we lay on ourselves and each other. When we exercise and eat healthily, we are ‘good’ people, and when we don’t do these things we’re ‘bad.’   In biological terms, food is simply fuel. In moral terms, it’s a battleground.

Permission to binge

Part of the problem is the way certain diet regimes are set up.  Last year I spent a rather miserable 6 weeks trying out the 5/2 diet. But limiting my calories to 500 on two days a week gave me moral licence to go completely overboard on the other 5 days. It was what kept me motivated on those days where all I had was a boiled egg and and cup of Bovril to look forward to.  My reward for eating less? Food.  Funny how that didn’t work out. When I used an online fitness app to control and monitor my calorie intake, I ‘earned’ calories each day for exercise. So on a Sunday, after I’d slogged my way through a run for an hour and a half, I would quickly add ‘700 calories’ credit to the app. (It’s quite unlikely I’d have burned that much, I do realise). That 700 along with my allotted calories ‘easily’ entitled me to a full roast dinner with all the trimmings, plus something with custard on it.

Each method worked quite well for while.  I was actively monitoring what I was eating, and this act alone can make a major difference to how much you eat. I also reminded myself of a key scientific fact – forget carbs, forget fats – in the end it all boils down to the fact that we need to burn more calories than we eat to lose weight.

But for most of us it never is that simple. We tend wildly overestimate the amount of calories burned when we exercise. We also get caught up in a moral licensing mindset of ‘I deserve..’ – with exercise as something to be endured so we can ‘treat ourselves.’

And for me, this explains why – like most dieters – I’d do well for a while,  plateau, get angry with myself, slip back, and then steadily gain back the weight.


How do we break the pattern?

Just recognising when we are playing the moral licensing game can help us to change, even if just a fraction at first.

Reframing (getting rid of ‘I deserve’).   I now work hard to not correlate exercise with weight loss. I’ve reframed exercise as something that helps me sleep better, lowers my stress levels, and boosts my confidence.

I consciously work to manage my weight only through my diet – by monitoring what I eat and giving thought and attention to what I’m eating – be that healthy foods or the not-so-healthy foods.

Does that always work? No. Sometimes a decent session at the gym makes me more inclined to ‘treat myself’ to a takeaway.  I’ve accepted that I will likely never completely break out of this kind of thinking  – but I am definitely less limited by it than I used to be.

Perhaps trickier is shifting away from thinking of food as a reward for, well, anything. This is a tougher one to break out of – and I’m not sure I’ll ever get there. Culturally, we have learned to associate feast with celebration and good times, and I’m pretty sure I never really want to unlearn that.  But there is a line between deliberate enjoyment, and mindless numbing.


Remember that some moderation makes things taste better.  By refraining from eating chocolate or drinking wine on a too regular basis, when we do actively decide to enjoy those things, they all taste so much better. i.e. You can taste them.

And leave morality out of it. Sometimes this kind of reframing may work for us. Other times it won’t and we’ll head for instant gratification (‘sod it..’).

That’s ok too. We would likely tell a friend to ‘let it go’ and stop beating themselves up over a seemingly ‘bad’ choice, yet we’re really bad at exercising the same kindnesses toward ourselves.  But that judging, morally superior inner voice, is the same one that gives many of us the permission to reward ourselves for ‘good’ behaviour. It’s also the voice we seek to suppress by reaching for the doughnuts. See the vicious cycle there?

Ironically, it’s only by breaking this highly judgemental, moralising relationship we have with ourselves that we’ll have the strength to make the changes we want.



One thought on “Moral licensing: When good habits go bad

    Abby said:
    February 8, 2016 at 8:02 am

    Really interesting post, thank you. I’m going to read up more now on more licensing. I can definitely relate to some of the things you shared here!

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