Does Choosing Salads Lead To Eating More Cookies?

How many times have you rewarded yourself for a great workout? Maybe you allowed yourself to have dessert because you had a particularly challenging workout? Maybe you made really good food choices throughout the day, which provided you with some wiggle room for extra drinks with your friends? 

This is actually very common and has been identified by researchers as something called the licensing effect. The licensing effect is the phenomenon where individuals are more likely to allow themselves to be “bad” after doing something “good.”[1] (These terms are used relatively, as each person’s good and bad may be defined differently). 

Imagine you view exercise as “good” behavior, and eating dessert as “bad” behavior. As a result of the licensing effect, after exercising you may be more likely to have dessert with dinner as a reward for being good and exercising earlier in the day. 

Why does this happen? One theory suggests it’s a result of maintaining the delicate balance of our own self-identity.[2] Each of us holds an internal belief about the type of person we are (i.e. generous and forgiving). By engaging in a behavior that supports these traits, we now feel freer to engage in behavior that contradicts them without fear of violating our identity.  

In one study, participants who recently bought an environmentally friendly product were likely to give less money to a partner in a cooperative game.[3] By buying the product that would help save the planet, they justified their self-belief of being a good person and need not be concerned with how they look by being unfair in the game. 

Another way of thinking about this is as a process to maintain equilibrium. Let’s take the trait of generosity as an example. Most people agree that being generous is a good trait, but there are also two opposing extremes: 

1) Not being generous. (Not helping anyone but yourself.) 

2) Being too generous. (Giving away everything you have to others.)

Imagine yourself in the middle of a spectrum of generosity. Now, if you do something particularly generous you earn yourself extra “generosity” points. These points move you on the spectrum further toward the “too generous” extreme. In order to maintain this equilibrium, you now have to do something considered not generous (cutting in line at the supermarket) to bring yourself back to the middle. 

Think about the equilibrium of being healthy and not healthy: if you choose a salad for dinner (earning extra healthy points), you might then feel justified having dessert–an unhealthy action that pulls you back to equilibrium.

How can you combat the desire to reward healthy choices with unhealthy ones? 

View each decision in isolation.

Researchers gave participants in two separate groups either one or two free movie rentals. The group with only one free movie rental was less likely to choose a low-substance movie compared to the group that could “get a second chance” to choose a good movie.[4] In much the same way, viewing your decisions as a string of choices will increase the chances that you will indulge in sweets now because you can, “make up for it later.” 

However, by weighing your decisions in isolation, and not in the context of future or past decisions, you can work to eliminate the justifications you use to violate the identity you’re trying to build. In other words, if you’re going to indulge in dessert do so because that is something you WANT, not because you feel like you’ve earned it or because you think you will make it up later. Avoid the, “I workout for cake,” mentality. 

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