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.