فصل 04کتاب: غریزه اراده / فصل 5
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License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad
Whenever I teach the Science of Willpower course, the universe provides a perfect willpower scandal to illustrate the theories of why we lose control. Gifts from the past include Ted Haggard, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, and Tiger Woods. These stories may be old news now,11 but hardly a week goes by without breaking news about some upstanding citizen—a politician, religious leader, cop, teacher, or athlete—who shocks the world with an epic willpower failure.
It’s tempting to interpret these stories in light of the limits of self-control. Each of these men was under tremendous pressure, from the demands of a punishing professional schedule to the need to control his public image twenty-four hours a day. Surely their self-control muscles were exhausted, their willpower drained, their blood sugar low, their prefrontal cortices shriveling up in protest. Who knows, maybe they were all on diets.
This would be too easy an answer (though I’m sure a defense attorney will eventually try it out on a grand jury). Not every lapse of self-control reflects an actual loss of control. Sometimes we make a conscious choice to give in to temptation. To fully understand why we run out of willpower, we need another explanation, one that is more psychological than physiological.
Though you may not be in danger of a s@x scandal worthy of national hysteria, we are all at risk for a little willpower hypocrisy—even if it’s just cheating on our New Year’s resolutions. To avoid following in the footsteps of our headline-making heroes, we need to rethink the assumption that every willpower failure is caused by weakness. In some cases, we are the victims of our own self-control success. We’ll consider how progress can paradoxically undermine our motivation, how optimism can give us a license to indulge, and why feeling good about our virtue is the fastest path to vice. In each case, we’ll see that giving in is a choice, and not an inevitable one. By seeing how we give ourselves permission, we can also discover how to keep ourselves on track.
FROM SAINTS TO SINNERS
I’d like you to rate the following statements on a scale of strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, somewhat agree, and strongly agree. First up: Most women are not really smart. And what about: Most women are better suited to stay at home taking care of the children than to work.
Now imagine you’ve asked these questions to Princeton University undergraduates. If you’re lucky, the female students won’t tell you to shove your survey up your asinine assumptions. Even the male students will reject these s@xist statements. But what if you had asked them instead to rate slightly different statements: Some women are not really smart, and Some women are better suited to stay at home taking care of the children. It’s not so easy to reject these statements. They might seem a little s@xist, but it’s hard to argue with “some.” These surveys were part of a study by psychologists Benoît Monin and Dale Miller, who were investigating stereotypes and decision making. As you might predict, Princeton students who were asked to rate the first two statements were quick to denounce them. But students who were asked to rate the qualified “some women” statements were more neutral on the matter.
After rating the statements, the students were asked to make a decision in a hypothetical hiring situation. Their assignment was to assess the suitability of several candidates—male and female—for a high-level job in a stereotypically male-dominated industry like construction or finance. This seems like a straightforward task, especially for the students who had just rejected s@xist statements. Surely they would not discriminate against a qualified woman. But the Princeton researchers found exactly the opposite. The students who had strongly disagreed with the obviously s@xist statements were more likely to favor a man for the job than the students who had somewhat reluctantly agreed with the less s@xist “some women” statements. The same pattern emerged when the researchers asked students about racist attitudes and then gave them an opportunity to discriminate against racial minorities.
These studies shocked a lot of people. Psychologists had long assumed that once you expressed an attitude, you would be likely to act in line with it. After all, who wants to feel like a hypocrite? But the Princeton psychologists had uncovered the exception to our usual desire to be consistent. When it comes to right and wrong, most of us are not striving for moral perfection. We just want to feel good enough—which then gives us permission to do whatever we want.
The students who had rejected obviously s@xist or racist statements felt they had established their moral credentials. They had proven to themselves that they were not s@xist or racist, but this left them vulnerable to what psychologists call moral licensing. When you do something good, you feel good about yourself. This means you’re more likely to trust your impulses—which often means giving yourself permission to do something bad. In this case, the students felt so good about themselves for rejecting the s@xist and racist statements, they became less vigilant about making a s@xist or racist decision. They were more likely to listen to an instinctive bias and less likely to consider whether a decision was consistent with their broader goal to be fair. It wasn’t that they wanted to discriminate—they simply let the glow of their earlier good behavior blind them to the harm of their decisions.
Moral licensing doesn’t just give us permission to do something bad; it also lets us off the hook when we’re asked to do something good. For example, people who first remember a time when they acted generously give 60 percent less money to a charitable request than people who have not just recalled a past good deed. In a business simulation, managers of a manufacturing plant are less likely to take costly measures to reduce the plant’s pollution if they have recently recalled a time when they acted ethically.
The moral licensing effect might explain why some people who have obvious moral credentials—a minister, a family values politician, an attorney general prosecuting corruption—can justify to themselves some serious moral lapses, whether it’s the married televangelist having s@x with his secretary, the fiscal conservative using public funds to remodel his home, or the police officer using extreme force against a nonresisting criminal. Most people don’t question their impulses when they’re feeling virtuous, and some people’s positions permanently remind them of their virtue.
Why are we suddenly talking about discrimination and s@x scandals instead of dieting and procrastination? Because what is a willpower challenge if not a battle between virtue and vice? Anything you moralize becomes fair game for the effect of moral licensing. If you tell yourself that you’re “good” when you exercise and “bad” when you don’t, then you’re more likely to skip the gym tomorrow if you work out today. Tell yourself you’re “good” for working on an important project and “bad” for procrastinating, and you’re more likely to slack off in the afternoon if you made progress in the morning. Simply put: Whenever we have conflicting desires, being good gives us permission to be a little bit bad.
Importantly, this is not just a matter of running out of blood sugar or willpower. When psychologists ask people about their licensed indulgences, the indulgers report feeling in control of their choices, not out of control. They also don’t feel guilty. Instead, they report feeling proud of themselves for earning a reward. They offer the justification, “I was so good, I deserve a little treat.” This sense of entitlement too often becomes our downfall. Because we’re quick to view self-indulgence as the best reward for virtue, we forget our real goals and give in to temptation.
THE WARM AND FUZZY LOGIC OF LICENSING
The logic of licensing is not, strictly speaking, logical. For one thing, we rarely require a connection between our “good” behavior and the “bad” behavior we’re justifying. Shoppers who restrain themselves from buying something tempting are more likely to go home and eat something tempting. Employees who put in extra time on a project may feel justified putting a personal expense on the company credit card.
Anything that makes us feel warm and fuzzy about our virtue—even just thinking about doing something good—can license us to follow our impulses. In one study, people were asked to choose which type of volunteer work they would prefer: teaching children in a homeless shelter or improving the environment. Even though they weren’t signing up for any actual service, just imagining the choice increased their desire to splurge on a pair of designer jeans. Another study found that merely considering donating money to a charity—without actually handing over any cash—increased people’s desire to treat themselves at the mall. Most generously, we even give ourselves credit for what we could have done, but didn’t. We could have eaten the whole pizza, but we only ate three slices. We could have bought a new wardrobe, but we made do with just a new jacket. Following this ridiculous line of logic, we can turn any act of indulgence into something to be proud of. (Feeling guilty about your credit card debt? Hey, at least you haven’t robbed a bank to pay it off!) Studies like this demonstrate that there is no careful accountant in our brains, calculating exactly how good we’ve been and what kind of self-indulgence we’ve earned. Instead, we trust the feeling that we have been good, and that we are a good person. Psychologists who study moral reasoning know this is how we make most judgments of right or wrong. We have a gut response, and we only look to logic if we are forced to explain our feelings. Many times, we can’t even come up with a logical reason to defend our judgment—but we stick with our feelings anyway. Take, for example, one of the morally dubious scenarios psychologists use to study how we decide what is right and what is wrong. Do you think it is morally acceptable for an adult brother and sister to have s@x, if they both want to and they use birth control? For most of us, this question triggers an instant inner ick. That’s just wrong. Then we strain our brains to explain why it must be immoral.
If we don’t get an inner ick, a sharp pang of guilt, or a twinge of anxiety when we think about something, it doesn’t feel wrong. Returning to more mundane willpower challenges, if a behavior—like having another slice of birthday cake or putting one more little thing on our credit cards—doesn’t trigger that instinctive feeling of “wrongness,” we don’t tend to question our impulses. This is how feeling good about ourselves for past good behavior helps us justify future indulgences. When you feel like a saint, the idea of self-indulgence doesn’t feel wrong. It feels right. Like you earned it. And if the only thing motivating your self-control is the desire to be a good enough person, you’re going to give in whenever you’re already feeling good about yourself.
The worst part of moral licensing is not just its questionable logic; the problem is how it tricks us into acting against our best interests. It convinces us that self-sabotaging behavior—whether breaking your diet, blowing your budget, or sneaking a smoke—is a “treat.” This is lunacy, but it’s an incredibly powerful trick of a mind that turns your wants into shoulds.
Moral judgments are also not nearly as motivating as our culture likes to believe. We idealize our own desire to be virtuous, and many people believe that they are most motivated by guilt and shame. But who are we kidding? We are most motivated by getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t want. Moralizing a behavior makes us more, not less, likely to feel ambivalent about it. When you define a willpower challenge as something you should do to be a better person, you will automatically start to come up with arguments for why you shouldn’t have to do it. It’s just human nature—we resist rules imposed by others for our own good. If you try to impose those rules on yourself, from a moralizing, self-improvement point of view, you’re going to hear very quickly from the part of you that doesn’t want to be controlled. And so when you tell yourself that exercising, saving money, or giving up smoking is the right thing to do—not something that will help you meet your goals—you’re less likely to do it consistently.
To avoid the moral licensing trap, it’s important to separate the true moral dilemmas from the merely difficult. Cheating on your taxes or your spouse may be morally flawed, but cheating on your diet is not a mortal sin. And yet, most people think of all forms of self-control as a moral test. Giving in to dessert, sleeping late, carrying a credit card balance—we use them to determine whether we are being good or bad. None of these things carry the true weight of sin or virtue. When we think about our willpower challenges in moral terms, we get lost in self-judgments and lose sight of how those challenges will help us get what we want.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: VIRTUE AND VICE
This week, watch how you talk to yourself and others about your willpower failures and successes:
• Do you tell yourself you’ve been “good” when you succeed at a willpower challenge, and “bad” when you give in to procrastination or temptation?
• Do you use your “good” behavior to give yourself permission to do something “bad”? Is this a harmless reward, or is it sabotaging your larger willpower goals?
WHEN EXERCISE LICENSES EATING, A BRIDE-TO-BE GAINS WEIGHT
Cheryl, a thirty-five-year-old financial adviser, was getting married in eight months. She wanted to lose fifteen pounds before the wedding, and had started working out at the gym three days a week. The problem was, she knew exactly how many calories every minute on the stair climber was worth. As she burned more calories, she couldn’t help imagining the food she was earning the right to eat. Although she had planned to cut back on calories, too, she felt free to eat a little more on workout days. If she exercised an extra five minutes, she could get chocolate chips on her frozen yogurt, or have a second glass of wine with dinner. Exercise began to equal a license to indulge. As a result, the scale had budged three pounds—in the wrong direction.
By thinking about exercise as earning food, Cheryl was undermining her goal to lose weight. To get out of this licensing trap, she needed to see exercise as a necessary step to achieving her goal, and healthier eating as a second, independent step she also had to take. They weren’t interchangeable “good” behaviors, and succeeding at one didn’t license her to take it easier on the other.
Don’t mistake a goal-supportive action for the goal itself. You aren’t off the hook just because you did one thing consistent with your goal. Notice if giving yourself credit for positive action makes you forget what your actual goal is.
THE PROBLEM WITH PROGRESS
Even if you aren’t turning your willpower challenges into measures of your moral worth, it’s still possible to fall into the trap of moral licensing. That’s because there’s one thing all Americans instinctively moralize. No, not s@x. Progress! Progress is good, and making progress on our goals feels good. So good that we like to congratulate ourselves: Well done, you!
Maybe we should think twice before we hand ourselves the gold star. While most of us believe that making progress on our goals spurs us on to greater success, psychologists know we are all too quick to use progress as an excuse for taking it easy. Ayelet Fishbach, professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and Ravi Dhar, professor at the Yale School of Management, have shown that making progress on a goal motivates people to engage in goal-sabotaging behavior. In one study, they reminded successful dieters of how much progress they had made toward their ideal weight. They then offered the dieters a thank-you gift of either an apple or a chocolate bar. Eighty-five percent of the self-congratulating dieters chose the chocolate bar over the apple, compared with only 58 percent of dieters who were not reminded of their progress. A second study found the same effect for academic goals: Students made to feel good about the amount of time they had spent studying for an exam were more likely to spend the evening playing beer pong with friends.
Progress can cause us to abandon the goal we’ve worked so hard on because it shifts the power of balance between our two competing selves. Remember that by definition, a willpower challenge involves two conflicting goals. Part of you is thinking about your long-term interests (e.g., weight loss); the other part wants immediate gratification (chocolate!). In the moment of temptation, you need your higher self to argue more loudly than the voice of self-indulgence. However, self-control success has an unintended consequence: It temporarily satisfies—and therefore silences—the higher self. When you make progress toward your long-term goal, your brain—with its mental checklist of many goals—turns off the mental processes that were driving you to pursue your long-term goal. It will then turn its attention to the goal that has not yet been satisfied—the voice of self-indulgence. Psychologists call this goal liberation. The goal you’ve been suppressing with your self-control is going to become stronger, and any temptation will become more tempting.
In practical terms, this means that one step forward gives you permission to take two steps back. Setting up your automatic retirement investment may satisfy the part of you that wants to save, liberating the part of you that wants to shop. Getting your files organized may satisfy the part of you that wants to work, liberating the part of you that wants to watch the game on TV. You were listening to the angel on your shoulder, but now the devil seems much more compelling.
Even the most trusty tool of goal pursuit, the To Do list, can backfire. Have you ever made a list of everything you need to do on a project, and then felt so good about yourself that you considered your work on that project done for the day? If so, you’re not alone. Because it’s such a relief to make that list, we mistake the satisfaction of identifying what needs to be done with actual effort toward our goals. (Or, as one of my students said, he loves productivity seminars because they make him feel so productive—never mind that nothing has been produced yet.) Although it runs counter to everything we believe about achieving our goals, focusing on progress can hold us back from success. That’s not to say that progress itself is a problem. The problem with progress is how it makes us feel—and even then, it’s only a problem if we listen to the feeling instead of sticking to our goals. Progress can be motivating, and even inspire future self-control, but only if you view your actions as evidence that you are committed to your goal. In other words, you need to look at what you have done and conclude that you must really care about your goal, so much so that you want to do even more to reach it. This perspective is easy to adopt; it’s just not our usual mind-set. More typically, we look for the reason to stop.
These two mind-sets have very different consequences. When people who have taken a positive step toward meeting a goal—for example, exercising, studying, or saving money—are asked, “How much progress do you feel you have made on your goal?” they are more likely to then do something that conflicts with that goal, like skip the gym the next day, hang out with friends instead of studying, or buy something expensive. In contrast, people who are asked, “How committed do you feel to your goal?” are not tempted by the conflicting behavior. A simple shift in focus leads to a very different interpretation of their own actions—“I did that because I wanted to,” not “I did that, great, now I can do what I really want!” WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT:TO REVOKE YOUR LICENSE, REMEMBER THE WHY
How do you focus on commitment instead of progress? A study by researchers at Hong Kong University of Science and the University of Chicago provides one strategy. When they asked students to remember a time they turned down a temptation, moral licensing ensued, and 70 percent took the next opportunity to indulge. But when they also asked the participants to remember why they had resisted, the licensing effect disappeared—69 percent resisted temptation. Like magic, the researchers had discovered a simple way to boost self-control and help the students make a choice consistent with their overall goals. Remembering the “why” works because it changes how you feel about the reward of self-indulgence. That so-called treat will start to look more like the threat to your goals that it is, and giving in won’t look so good. Remembering the why will also help you recognize and act on other opportunities to accomplish your goal.
The next time you find yourself using past good behavior to justify indulging, pause and remember the why.
WHEN TOMORROW LICENSES TODAY
Whether it’s patting ourselves on the back for making progress, or remembering how we resisted temptation yesterday, we are quick to give ourselves credit for past good behavior. But the fuzzy math of moral licensing doesn’t limit us to taking only past actions into account. We just as easily look into the future, and credit ourselves with our planned virtuous behavior. For example, people who merely intend to exercise later are more likely to overeat at dinner. This habit allows us to sin today, and make up for it later—or so we tell ourselves.
DON’T COUNT YOUR GRILLED CHICKEN SALAD BEFORE IT’SHATCHED
Imagine this: It’s lunchtime, you’re in a rush, and the most convenient place to pick something up is a fast-food restaurant. You’re trying to watch your weight and improve your health, so your plan is to avoid the most fattening foods on the menu. When you get in line, you’re delighted to see that along with the usual indulgent fare, the restaurant is offering a new line of salads. This restaurant is close to your office, so you come here more often than has probably been good for your waistline. You’re thrilled that you’ll now have options you won’t have to feel guilty about. You stand in line, considering your choices, weighing a garden salad against a grilled chicken salad. Then, when you’re finally in front of the register, you hear the words “double cheeseburger and fries” coming out of your mouth.
What just happened?
It might seem like old habits kicked in, or maybe the aroma of french fries overpowered your good intentions. But would you believe that the healthy items on the menu actually made you more likely to order the cheeseburger and fries?
This is the conclusion of several studies by marketing researchers at Baruch College, City University of New York. The researchers were intrigued by reports that when McDonald’s added healthier items to its menu, sales of Big Macs skyrocketed. To find out why, the researchers designed their own fast-food menus and set up a mock restaurant. Diners were given a menu and asked to select one item. All the menus had a range of standard fast-food fare, such as french fries, chicken nuggets, and a baked potato with fixings. Half the participants were given a special menu that also included a healthy salad. When the salad was an option, the percentage of participants choosing the least healthy and most fattening item on the menu increased. The researchers found the same effect for vending machine choices. When a reduced-calorie package of cookies was added to a set of standard junk-food options, participants were more likely to choose the least healthy snack (which, in this case, happened to be chocolate-covered Oreos).
How can this be? Sometimes the mind gets so excited about the opportunity to act on a goal, it mistakes that opportunity with the satisfaction of having actually accomplished the goal. And with the goal to make a healthy choice out of the way, the unmet goal—immediate pleasure—takes priority. You feel less pressure to actually order the healthy item, and you feel a stronger desire for the indulgent item. Add this up, and although it makes no rational sense, you give yourself permission to order the most artery-clogging, waist-expanding, and life-span-shortening thing on the menu. These studies call into question the public health push to offer at least one healthy choice in school cafeterias, vending machines, and chain restaurants. Unless the change is widespread, and all of the offerings are made healthier, there is a risk that people will end up making even worse choices than if nothing had been done.
Maybe you think you wouldn’t be susceptible to this effect—surely you have more self-control than the suckers in these studies! If so, then you’re really in trouble. The participants who rated themselves as having the best self-control, especially around food, were the most likely to end up ordering the least healthy item when a healthy choice was available. While only 10 percent of these self-identified willpower wonders chose the least healthy item when the menu did not include a salad, 50 percent chose the least healthy item when the salad was an option. Perhaps they were so confident that they would order the healthy item in the future, they felt comfortable ordering the french fries today.
This illustrates a fundamental mistake we make when thinking about our future choices. We wrongly but persistently expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today. I’ll smoke this one cigarette, but starting tomorrow, I’m done. I’ll skip the gym today, but I’m sure I’ll go tomorrow. I’ll splurge on holiday gifts, but then no more shopping for at least three months.
Such optimism licenses us to indulge today—especially if we know we will have the opportunity to choose differently in the near future. For example, researchers at Yale University gave students the choice between a fat-free yogurt and a large Mrs. Fields cookie. When the students were told they would have the same options the following week, 83 percent chose the cookie, compared with only 57 percent of students who thought the snacks were a one-time opportunity. Students showed the same pattern when the choice was between lowbrow and highbrow entertainment (“I can be educated and enlightened next week”), and between an immediate, smaller financial reward and a larger, delayed financial reward (“I need the cash now, but next week I’ll wait for the bigger payoff ”).
In fact, 67 percent of students who were told they’d have the same choice the following week predicted that they would choose the more virtuous option. But when the experimenters actually brought them back to the lab for a second choice, only 36 percent made a different choice. Nevertheless, they felt much less guilt over that initial indulgent choice when they thought they could make up for it later.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: ARE YOU BORROWING CREDIT FROM TOMORROW?
As you go about making decisions related to your willpower challenge, notice if the promise of future good behavior comes up in your thinking. Do you tell yourself you will make up for today’s behavior tomorrow? What effect does this have on your self-control today? For extra credit, keep paying attention—all the way to tomorrow. Do you actually do what you said you would, or does the cycle of “indulge today, change tomorrow” begin again?
WHY THERE’S ALWAYS TIME TO DO IT TOMORROW
Our optimism about the future extends not just to our own choices, but to how easy it will be to do what we say we will do. Psychologists have shown that we wrongly predict we will have much more free time in the future than we do today. This trick of the mind has been best demonstrated by two marketing professors—Robin Tanner at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Kurt Carlson at Duke University—who were intrigued by the mistakes consumers make in predicting how much they will use exercise equipment, 90 percent of which is destined to collect dust in the basement. They were curious what people thought about when they imagined their future use of those barbells or ab machines. Did they imagine a future much like the present, full of competing time commitments, distractions, and daily fatigue? Or did they imagine some alternate reality?
To find out, they asked a whole bunch of people to predict, “How many times per week (on average) will you exercise in the next month?” Then they asked another group of people the same question, with one important preface: “In an ideal world, how many times per week will you exercise in the next month?” The two groups showed no differences in their estimates—people were, by default, answering the question “in an ideal world” even when they had been asked to predict their actual, not ideal, behavior. We look into the future and fail to see the challenges of today. This convinces us that we will have more time and energy to do in the future what we don’t want to do today. We feel justified in putting it off, confident that our future behavior will more than make up for it.
This psychological tendency is difficult to shake. The experimenters tried to prompt more realistic self-predictions by giving some people the explicit instructions, “Please do not provide an idealistic prediction, but rather the most realistic prediction of your behavior that you can.” People who received these instructions showed even more optimism about their behavior, reporting the highest estimates yet. The experimenters decided they had to give these optimists a reality check, so they invited them back two weeks later to report how many times they had actually exercised. Not surprisingly, this number was lower than predicted. People had made their predictions for an ideal world, but lived through two weeks in the real world.
The experimenters then asked these same people to predict how many times they would exercise in the next two weeks. Ever the optimists, they made estimates even higher than their initial predictions, and much higher than their actual reports from the past two weeks. It’s as if they took their original predicted average seriously, and were assigning their future selves extra exercise to make up for their “unusually poor” performance. Rather than view the past two weeks as reality, and their original estimates as an unrealistic ideal, they viewed the past two weeks as an anomaly.
Such optimism is understandable—if we expected to fail at every goal we set, we’d give up before we got started. But if we use our positive expectations to justify present inaction, we might as well not have even set the goal in the first place.
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: A TOMORROW JUST LIKE TODAY
Behavioral economist Howard Rachlin proposes an interesting trick for overcoming the problem of always starting a change tomorrow. When you want to change a behavior, aim to reduce the variability in your behavior, not the behavior itself. He has shown that smokers asked to try to smoke the same number of cigarettes every day gradually decrease their overall smoking—even when they are explicitly told not to try to smoke less. Rachlin argues that this works because the smokers are deprived of the usual cognitive crutch of pretending that tomorrow will be different. Every cigarette becomes not just one more smoked today, but one more smoked tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. This adds new weight to every cigarette, and makes it much harder to deny the health consequences of a single smoke.
Apply Rachlin’s advice to your own willpower challenge this week: Aim to reduce the variability of your behavior day to day. View every choice you make as a commitment to all future choices. So instead of asking, “Do I want to eat this candy bar now?” ask yourself, “Do I want the consequences of eating a candy bar every afternoon for the next year?” Or if you’ve been putting something off that you know you should do, instead of asking “Would I rather do this today or tomorrow?” ask yourself, “Do I really want the consequences of always putting this off?” VEGETARIAN BEFORE DINNER
Jeff, a thirty-year-old network systems analyst, was a conflicted carnivore. He kept reading about the health benefits of eating less meat, not to mention the horrors of the food-processing industry. But then there was the joy of a steak burrito, sausage-and-pepperoni pizza, a fast-food burger, and bacon at breakfast. Jeff knew becoming a vegetarian would ease his ethical concerns, but when a slice of pizza was within arm’s reach, the desire to be a better person dissolved in the steam rising off the melted cheese.
His early attempts to eat less meat resulted in some creative moral licensing. He found himself using one vegetarian item to cancel out the “badness” of a nonvegetarian item—such as ordering a side of vegetable chili to ease his guilt about ordering a steak burrito. Or he would use whatever he ate at breakfast to determine whether this would be a “good day” or a “bad day”—if he ate a bacon-and-egg sandwich for breakfast, it was going to be a bad day, which meant he was free to eat meat at lunch and dinner, too. Tomorrow (he told himself) would be a good day from start to finish.
Rather than giving himself permission to be good on some days and bad on others (which, predictably, led to more bad days than good), he decided to take the challenge of reducing the variability in his behavior. He settled on the strategy of “vegetarian before dinner.” He would stick to vegetarian foods until six p.m., then eat whatever he wanted to for dinner. With this rule, he couldn’t eat a burger at noon and tell himself dinner would be nothing but broccoli—and he couldn’t use the morning’s cereal as an excuse to have chicken wings for lunch.
This approach is a great way to end the endless internal debate about whether you’ve earned a reward. When Jeff was deciding between the ham-and-cheese sandwich and the hummus wrap at lunch, the new rule made it easy to decide. Lunch is vegetarian, no conversation. Using a daily rule also helps you see through the illusion that what you do tomorrow will be totally different from what you do today. Jeff knew that if he broke his rule one day, he would—according to the experiment’s instructions—have to break it every day for the rest of the week. Even though the ham-and-cheese sandwich looked tempting, he really didn’t want to abandon his goal for the whole week. Seeing the sandwich as the beginning of a new rule, not the exception, made it less appetizing.
Is there a rule you can live with that will help you end the kind of inner debate that talks you right out of your goals?
WHEN SIN LOOKS LIKE VIRTUE
There’s one last licensing trap we must learn to avoid, and unlike all of the traps we’ve seen so far, it has nothing to do with our own virtuous behavior. It has to do with our deep desire to convince ourselves that what we want isn’t so bad. As you’ll see, we are far too eager to give the object of our temptation its own moral credentials, licensing us to indulge guilt-free.
THE HALO EFFECT
Imagine you are in the grocery store, picking up a few things for the weekend. You round the corner from the cereal aisle into the frozen foods section, where you encounter a most unusual in-store promotion. A veritable angel—of the holy variety, not some blonde teen-dream fantasy—holds a tray of food samples. The golden glow of her halo illuminates a plate of mini hot dogs. Harp music seems to be coming out of her pores. “Try one,” the angel entreats you. You look at the plump appetizers, and thoughts of saturated fat, nitrites, and cholesterol run through your head. You know these hot dogs are not good for your diet, but surely, an angel wouldn’t steer you wrong? Maybe just one bite . . . Congratulations: You have just met, and fallen for, the halo effect. This form of moral licensing looks for any reason to say “yes” to temptation. When we want permission to indulge, we’ll take any hint of virtue as a justification to give in.
To see this in action, you don’t have to look any further than dinner. Studies show that people who order a main dish advertised as a healthy choice also order more indulgent drinks, side dishes, and desserts. Although their goal is to be healthy, they end up consuming more calories than people who order a regular entrée. Dieting researchers call this a health halo. We feel so good about ordering something healthy, our next indulgence doesn’t feel sinful at all.12 We also see virtuous choices as negating indulgences—literally, in some cases. Researchers have found that if you pair a cheeseburger with a green salad, diners estimate that the meal has fewer calories than the same cheeseburger served by itself. This makes no sense, unless you believe that putting lettuce on a plate can magically make calories disappear. (Though judging by what people order at the movies and restaurants, I’d say many of us believe diet sodas have a similar calorie-negating effect.) What’s really happening is that the salad is clouding the diners’ judgment. It’s giving them a feeling that the meal they’re eating is virtuous. Those lettuce leaves come with a health halo that casts a glow on the burger, making it more likely that they will underestimate the health “cost” of the meal. Dieters—who in theory should be the most likely to know the calorie counts of foods—were the most susceptible to the halo effect, taking 100 calories off their estimates when a salad was added.
Halo effects pop up all over the place, whenever something indulgent is paired with something more virtuous. For example, studies also show that shoppers who buy chocolate for a charity will reward their good deed by eating more chocolate. The altruistic donation shines its halo glow on the candy bars, and the do-gooders enjoy them, guilt-free. Bargain-hunters who get a good deal may feel so virtuous for saving money that they buy more than they intended, and gift-givers may feel so generous that they decide they, too, deserve a gift. (This may explain why women’s shoes and clothing make up the largest percentage of early holiday shopping.) MAGIC WORDS
The problem here is that when we think of food or products in terms of “good” and “bad,” we let a good feeling take the place of common sense. This allows restaurants and marketers to add 1 percent virtue to 99 percent vice and make us feel good about ourselves even as we sabotage our long-term goals. Because we’re already conflicted about our goals (Health! No, pleasure!), we’re happy to be complicit in this charade.
The SnackWells cookie craze of 1992 is a perfect example of this kind of moral licensing. When dieters saw the words “Fat Free!” on the outside of the package, it more than canceled out the sin of the chocolate devil’s food cookies on the inside. People watching their weight irrationally consumed whole boxfuls of the high-sugar treats, blinded by the light of the fat-free halo (OK, I admit, I was one of them). Medical researchers dubbed this confusion, and the unintentional weight gain that followed, the “SnackWell Syndrome.” Nowadays, “fat free” may not have the same effect on jaded dieters, but we aren’t necessarily any wiser. Recent research suggests that we’ve merely traded old magic words for new ones. Oreo cookies labeled “organic” are judged to have fewer calories than regular Oreos, and are perceived as more appropriate to eat every day. Call it a green glow—eating organic is not just healthy, but the right thing to do for the planet. The environmental friendliness of the cookies canceled out any nutritional sins. The more pro-environment a person was, the more they underestimated the calories in the organic cookies and approved of eating them daily—just like the dieters were most susceptible to the health halo of adding a salad to a burger. The more we care about a particular virtue, the more vulnerable we are to ignoring how a “virtuous” indulgence might threaten our long-term goals.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: ARE YOU HANDING OUT HALOS?
Do you give yourself permission to indulge in something by focusing on its most virtuous quality? Do you have any magic words that give you permission to indulge, like “Buy 1 Get 1 Free,” “All Natural,” “Light,” “Fair Trade,” “Organic,” or “For a Good Cause”? This week, see if you can catch yourself in the act of handing out a halo to something that undermines your goals.
A SHOPPER SEDUCED BY SAVINGS SPENDS MORE
Margaret, a recently retired pharmacist, was a discount shopping club junkie. The steeper the discount, the bigger the high. Rolling her cart through the warehouse aisles, grabbing items in bulk off the shelves, she felt good about scoring a deal. Toilet paper, cereal, wrapping paper—it didn’t matter, as long as it was a bargain. Everything about the store, from the visibly slashed prices to the no-frills decor, screamed, “You are saving money, you shopping genius!” And yet when Margaret took a cold, hard look at the receipts from her weekly trip to the discount store, it was clear she was spending way more than she ever had at the regular grocery store. She had gotten so used to focusing on the “You saved __!” tally at the end of each receipt, she was ignoring the total amount she was spending. Margaret realized that just by stepping foot in the discount store, she was falling under the store’s halo effect. This was liberating her to spend without guilt, and she had been all too happy to indulge. To find her way out of this trap, she redefined what it meant to save. No longer would getting a good deal qualify—she had to stay under a set spending limit and get a good deal. She still felt good about saving, but no longer let the glow of savings turn her weekly trips into shopping sprees.
When a halo effect is getting in the way of your willpower challenge, look for a the most concrete measure (e.g., calories, cost, time spent or wasted) of whether a choice is consistent with your goals.
THE RISKS OF GOING GREEN
How many times have you been asked to save the planet by taking one small action, from changing your lightbulbs to carrying reusable shopping bags? You may even have been asked to purchase something called a “carbon offset”—basically, a financial penance for your energy use and overconsumption. For example, travelers who feel guilty about the environmental impact of flying first class can kick in a little extra money for the airline to plant a tree in South America.
All of these actions, on their own, are good for the environment. But what happens if these actions change the way we think about ourselves? Will they convince us that we care about the planet, and motivate us to go green whenever possible? Or could these virtuous choices be contributing to environmental harm by serving as constant reminders of our green credentials?
I first started worrying about this when a study came out showing a moral licensing effect for going green. Just browsing a website that sells green products, like rechargeable batteries and organic yogurt, makes people feel good about themselves. But going green doesn’t always lead to virtuous action. The study found that people who actually chose to purchase an eco-friendly product were more likely to then cheat on a test that paid them for each correct answer. They were also more likely to steal extra money out of the envelope they were told to collect their payout from. Somehow the virtue of green shopping justified the sins of lying and stealing.
Even if you don’t think driving a Prius is going to turn you into a liar,13 the findings of this study are troubling. Yale economist Matthew J. Kotchen has raised concerns that small “green” actions will reduce both consumers’ and businesses’ guilt, licensing larger harmful behaviors. We may be concerned about the environment, but making significant lifestyle changes is not easy. It can be overwhelming to think about the magnitude of climate change and energy shortages, and what needs to happen to prevent disaster. Anything that lets us feel like we have done our part—so we can stop thinking about the problem—we will jump at. And once our guilt and anxiety are gone, we will feel free to resume our usual wasteful ways. So a reusable shopping bag can become license to buy more, planting a tree can become license to travel more, and changing your lightbulbs can become license to live in a bigger, energy-hungry house.
The good news is, not all green acts are likely to inspire conspicuous consumption and guilt-free carbon binges. University of Melbourne economists have found that a licensing effect is most likely when people pay a “penance” for bad behavior—for example, paying an extra $2.50 to plant a tree to make up for the carbon costs of your home electricity use. The consumer’s general eco-guilt is relieved, increasing the chance that they will feel licensed to consume more energy. A similar effect has been found with other well-intentioned penalty policies. For example, daycare centers that charge parents a fine for picking up their children late find that the policy actually increases late pickups. Parents are able to buy the right to be late, erasing their guilt. And because most of us would rather pay a little to do what’s easiest, these programs license us to pass the buck to someone else.
However, when people are given a chance to pay for something that replaces a harmful act with something good for the environment—for example, paying 10 percent more on your electricity bill to use green sources of energy—no such licensing effect is seen. Why not? Economists speculate that this kind of green act doesn’t so much reduce guilt as it strengthens the consumer’s sense of commitment to the environment. When we pay that extra money to use wind or solar energy, we think, I’m the kind of person who does good things for the planet! And then we carry that identity with us, looking for more ways to live our values and achieve our goals. If we want to motivate green behavior in others, we would be wise to focus more on strengthening a person’s identity as someone who cares about the environment, and less on giving people the opportunity to buy the right to melt the polar ice caps.
This goes for any type of positive change, including how we try to motivate ourselves. We need to feel like the kind of person who wants to do the right thing. Moral licensing turns out to be, at its core, an identity crisis. We only reward ourselves for good behavior if we believe that who we really are is the self that wants to be bad. From this point of view, every act of self-control is a punishment, and only self-indulgence is a reward. But why must we see ourselves this way? Moving beyond the traps of moral licensing requires knowing that who we are is the self that wants the best for us—and the self that wants to live in line with our core values. When this happens, we will no longer view the impulsive, lazy, or easily tempted self as the “real” us. We will no longer act like someone who must be bribed, tricked, or forced to pursue our goals, and then rewarded for making any effort at all.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
When you think about your willpower challenge, which part of you feels more like the “real” you—the part of you who wants to pursue the goal, or the part of you who needs to be controlled? Do you identify more with your impulses and desires, or with your long-term goals and values? When you think about your willpower challenge, do you feel like the kind of person who can succeed—or do you feel like you need to fundamentally suppress, improve, or change who you are?
THE LAST WORD
In the quest for self-control, it is a mistake to frame every willpower challenge in moral terms. We are too quick to give ourselves moral credit for good deeds done or merely contemplated, and too good at justifying giving in. Thinking in terms of “right” and “wrong” instead of remembering what we really want will trigger competing impulses and license self-sabotaging behavior. For change to stick, we need to identify with the goal itself, not the halo glow we get from being good.
The Idea: When we turn willpower challenges into measures of moral worth, being good gives us permission to be bad. For better self-control, forget virtue, and focus on goals and values.
Under the Microscope
• Virtue and vice. Do you tell yourself you’ve been “good” when you succeed at a willpower challenge, then give yourself permission to do something “bad”?
• Are you borrowing credit from tomorrow? Do you tell yourself you will make up for today’s behavior tomorrow—and if so, do you follow through?
• Halo effects. Do you justify a vice because of one virtuous aspect (e.g., discount savings, fat-free, protects the environment)?
• Who do you think you are? When you think about your willpower challenge, which part of you feels like the “real” you—the part of you who wants to pursue the goal, or the part of you who needs to be controlled?
• To revoke your license, remember the why. The next time you find yourself using past good behavior to justify indulging, pause and think about why you were “good,” not whether you deserve a reward.
• A tomorrow just like today. For your willpower challenge, aim to reduce the variability of your behavior day to day.
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