Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #2: Moral Licensing.

For two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Before and After. In that forthcoming book, I identify the twenty-two strategies that we can use to change our habits.

Here, I’m talking about the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. Loopholes matter, because when we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes. We look for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.

However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps avoid employing the loophole, and improve our chances of keeping the habit.

There are many kinds of loopholes. Ten kinds, in fact. So each day for the two weeks, I’m posting about a category of loophole, to help with the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Yesterday was #1, the False Choice Loophole. Today….

Loophole Category #2: Moral Licensing

In moral licensing, we give ourselves permission to do something “bad” (eat potato chips, bust the budget) because we’ve been “good.” We reason that we’ve earned it or deserve it, or that some “good” behavior has offset something “bad.”

After the day I had, I’ve earned a nice glass of wine.

I’ve been losing weight steadily on this diet, so it will be okay for me to cut a few corners.

I’ve been so diligent about meditating, I deserve a day off.

I haven’t had Girl Scout cookies in years, so I should be able to have some now.

After all I do for others, I’m entitled to a little treat for myself.

I didn’t have a first course so I can have dessert. (Skipping a small green salad justifies a giant piece of cheesecake.)

I’ve done so much Christmas shopping, I deserve to buy something for myself.

I’m not getting any toppings.

I’m much better about this than I used to be.

I saved so much by not buying ___ that I deserve to buy this ____.

I’ve ordered a big salad of organic fruit with my pancakes, so my meal is healthy. (This is an example of the “health halo.”)

In a particularly popular yet counter-productive variation of moral licensing, people who want to lose weight use exercise to justify eating or drinking. “I went running today, so I’ve earned a few beers.” The fact is, research shows that while exercise is very important for good health, exercise doesn’t help with weight loss; weight loss is driven by changes in diet.

Sometimes, in fact, we don’t even wait to earn or deserve something “bad”; we argue that we’re entitled to be “bad” now because we plan to be “good” in the future. I’ll post about that strategy tomorrow.

Do you find yourself using this loophole? In what circumstances?

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  • Meg Clare

    I really wish I did, its like I have no moral compass. If I don’t feel like doing something I just go flop on the couch and switch on the TV or spend ‘too much time’ on the computer, grab a book and my journal. Food isn’t an issue for me as I have life and death allergies, so I find no problem in sticking to the diet I am living on.

    • Caroline Donahue

      Funny- I have terrible allergies as well so it’s easy to stick to a diet. I sometimes find that because of those allergies I sometimes let myself off the hook with the foods I can eat- I’m not crazy about portion control because there are so many things I’m not allowed to have at all. Do you find the same thing?

      • Meg Clare

        Yes, I’m afraid I do just eat as much as I want of what I can have. But, I’ve eliminated sugars, dairy and breads, so aside from the one type of chips I’ve found that are safe, I’m down to fruits and vegetables.

        • Caroline Donahue

          I know the feeling. I have had to eliminate sugars (including fruit!), dairy, gluten, and soy. So when someone offers me french fries, I pretty much allow myself to go for it. 🙂

  • Caroline Donahue

    I definitely use this one, but I have come to make it a deliberate choice rather than one that can be re-evaluated on a day to day basis. I don’t eat unhealthy food every day on the off chance I go running, but I do allow myself to buy something I have wanted for a long time after I go through a deadline at work. I know when these big deadlines happen, and it’s only three times a year, so these moral compass indulgences feel like a ritual now, rather than a bad habit.

    I find sanctioning indulgence helps me to enjoy it more- eating what I want on Thanksgiving, or letting myself buy only one really good clothing item a month but no others- these deliberate indulgences keep me in line AND allow me to enjoy life as well.

    • gretchenrubin

      The important key to what you’re doing is PLANNING. You have PLANNED your exception to your usual pattern.

      If we PLAN to break a habit, then we’re in control, and making a balanced choice. Moral licensing becomes a problem when it’s invoked on the spot, to justify an action that, over the long term, we might well regret.

      • Caroline Donahue

        That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for this!

        I find a good compass is whether I feel a sense of pressure and anxiety when I make an exception. If I feel antsy, I am probably breaking a rule I’d be better off keeping.

        I love this topic! Can’t wait for the new book.

  • Emily

    I’m guilty of using this loophole if I haven’t planned adequately. I am an avid runner who will justify a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or pizza and frozen yogurt after a long run during the hot summer months. My sweets cravings can get the best of me. Oddly, I’ve found that using sticky notes has helped me control my indulgences. I number each sticky note according to the number of days that I wish to curb eating sweets. I haven’t broken a promise to myself yet using this as a reminder to hold off. It’s silly, but it works!

    What ways can we break the cycle of this loophole?

  • peninith1

    I think this might be one of my WORST ones . . . especially in the eating category!!! I really have found your ‘if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing every day’ mantra a great help with exercise. And as for food, I am currently doing quite well building other ‘you’ve been so good’ rewards into my life so that I don’t use food as a reward for ‘being good’ any more. This is a hard habit to break, and at best I can say that I have been successful at it for a few months. I will be more able to deal with it now that I have a clear identifier for it. Especially love the ‘health halo’ term!
    I know that I could never be capable of exercising enough to burn off what I am easily capable of eating!!!

    • peninith1

      P.S. I love your point above that there’s a big difference between ‘on-the-spot’ impulse decisions done with the help of moral licensing and a PLANNED reward. I can go with that! Thanks.

  • Norah Woychyshyn

    Oh, to familiar. I have heard others say it and do it myself. Some circumstance happens in life so now I should treat myself to feel better. What is worse my friends encouraged it. Well, it was nice when I had the muffin and coffee but now reaing this it wasn’t a good idea.

  • guilty-how do i fix it?

  • beverley smith

    I have been doing this for years. Been reading a book called ‘Live Long, Die Short’ by Roger Landry who is is advocating the Kaizen way. He says that our brains are hot-wired against change because in the time of hunter/gatherers change brought about a fear response and apparently it still does today. So if we decide to change everything at once the fear response kicks in to protect us and we fail, again. Kaizen, is the Japanese way of changing something so slightly that it tricks our brains and we do not realise there as been a change and therefore there is no fear response. Landry says it so much better than i do. as i am still at the stage of reward now, pay later.

  • MimiManderly

    *Shakes head* Nope. At least this is one loophole I’m not guilty of. Whew! Rewards don’t seem to have any effect on me… perhaps because I don’t deny myself things I want when I want them. I’m more likely to have too much to drink because I’ve had a bad day or something upsetting occurred than because I feel I “deserve it”. To MY way of thinking, I ALWAYS deserve it!

  • Cheryl

    I use this one ALL the time!

  • Addison

    Thank you for your book Gretchen. I finished the Happiness Project last night. I was unfamiliar with your work until reading “Daring Greatly” by Brené Brown in which she referenced your work.
    I am so glad I took the time to read it and I will not be moving onto your newest title and then back around to Churchill.
    Lovely is all I can say.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that my work strikes a chord with you. I hope you enjoy the other books, too!

  • Laurel

    Kelly McGonigal wrote a book, “The Willpower Instinct” that has suggestions on how to deal with all the ways we try to develop willpower and change habits. She also lists the research behind it. I use moral licensing a lot. Now I wonder when I make a choice, is it a rationalization or a conscious choice!

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVE that book.

      • phoenix1920

        Do you have other recommendations that are in this category–until your book comes out in ’15?

  • Suzie Kornblum

    Thank you for using the example of “I exercised and so I can eat more and lose weight” and noting that weight loss comes primarily from dietary changes, not adding exercise alone. Though exercise does reshape the body during and after weight loss and is an important part of the process. A very important point that many who are on a weight loss journey tend to overlook!
    I’m excited to see your posts on the loophole topic.

  • Ana

    I definitely do this…and the only thing that has worked as a “cure” is to replace the unhealthy rewards with healthier ones. If I just ignore my desire for a treat, I feel denied and unhappy, but substituting something else takes care of the urge. Instead of “I’ve had a rough day so I deserve wine and chocolate”, I’m trying to go for “I’ve had a rough day so I deserve to get into bed early with a book”. Instead of “aargh, that was a long and annoying meeting, lets all go get coffee and a pastry” I want to try “aargh that meeting stressed us out, we should take a quick walk to clear our heads”. The one I don’t do is eating badly after exercise…the fact that I went through the trouble to get up early and go running actually inspires me to eat healthier that day.

  • Allison

    Yikes! With the exception of the meditation one, I think I am guilty of all of your examples!! It must go back to the fact that I am a true Moderator, not an Abstainer at all. Would this even be an issue for an Abstainer. I think that’s where I need to make the change.

    • gretchenrubin

      Abstainers avoid a lot of this, which is why abstaining can be easier for some people.
      As a Moderator, try not to seek justifications. You get it because you want it; not because you’ve earned it or deserve it. Other Strategies are the Strategies of Rewards and the Strategy of Treats…these also are relevant here.

  • RunnerMama

    Wow. There’s a LOT of guilt, shame, and misinformation all wrapped up in this “Happiness” blog. Lots of talk of eating “bad” things. Since when is organic fruit and pancakes a “bad” meal choice? And “exercise does not help with weight loss…”??? Perhaps it’s not the whole picture, but “does not help” is just incorrect. Please stick to happiness advice and not nutrition or exercise advice. I run almost every day and – gasp – eat pancakes. And fruit. I am not overweight, don’t feel guilt, and it keeps me pretty darn happy. Wise words from a former coach: “Eat food, drink water, work hard (exercise).” Everything in moderation. Be well.

    • gretchenrubin

      Everything in moderation…unless you’re an Abstainer!

    • Sonny

      I generally really like this blog but I’ve noticed an undercurrent of unhealthy attitudes toward eating in a few posts now. Assigning moral value to food choices (i.e. “I was bad and ate a cupcake”) is a common attitude among people with eating disorders, both anorexia/bulimia/etc. and over-eating.

      • gretchenrubin

        I object to the association of any attempt to avoid eating certain foods with eating disorders. It’s just not the case that everyone who struggles to avoid certain foods, and tries to eat healthy food, has an eating disorder.

        When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, and their habits challenge, the challenge of healthy eating is one of the most common – right up there with exercise and battling procrastination.

        I’m an Abstainer, and Moderators sometimes try to persuade me that I’m wrong to take this approach, that it’s unhealthy, rigid and doomed to failure. True, Abstaining DOES NOT WORK FOR EVERYONE. But it works for some people, and for us, it’s EASIER.

        Don’t know about Abstainers and Moderators?

        Also, when I post about a loophole, I’m not endorsing it or saying that I use it myself. I use examples that I’ve heard.

        • Sonny

          I did not say that abstaining from certain foods is unhealthy. Obviously some foods are not good for you. I’m talking about conflating food choices with morals – the idea that by eating bad foods you are BEING “bad” or “weak” etc.

          I’m not accusing you personally of having an eating disorder and I’m sorry if my post came off that way. But I think it is worth considering whether you are using language that is triggering to people who do have guilt or shame about food that negatively affects their lives. It’s a pretty pervasive attitude in our culture and it’s easy not to notice.

          • Sonny

            Something else stuck me on the drive home from work… have you ever written a post that questioned the assumption that being skinnier will make you happier? I’ve been reading for a long time now and I can think of plenty of weight loss tips but can’t recall anything about positive body image. Conflating weight with self-worth is a huge cause of unhappiness, especially for women, and yet it does not seem to be addressed here often, if at all.

          • gretchenrubin

            You’re right, it’s very important not to throw words around like “bad” and “good.”

            In fact, for Before and After, for most of the writing I didn’t talk about “bad habits” or “good habits,” but “healthy habits” – by which I meant ones that worked for you, but it kept sounding like habits specifically related to health.

            So now I do use “good” and “bad” habits, but with the definition that a “bad” habit is one that over the long term, you think doesn’t contribute to your well-being.

            Playing Solitaire on your phone might be a “good” habit for someone, because it distracts him from snacking, but it might be a “bad” habit for someone, who spends too much time on that and wants to spend the time reading.

            To say that a PERSON is being “bad” or “good” however….no! I agree.

            Also, very interesting, feeling shame about a habit makes people LESS likely to be able to tackle it. So very important, when changing habits, to be compassionate toward yourself when you slip up.

  • Chris

    All I can say is, you are really nailing the language. Can’t wait to read the new book.

    • gretchenrubin

      Glad to hear that!

  • Jeanne

    Spoken like a true abstainer. To us moderators, occasional treats are not nearly as much of a problem. To maintain my weight, besides exercising every day (well, almost every day, as a moderator, I usually skip a day or two a week to accommodate my schedule without any problem), getting plenty of water and sleep, I keep my daily calorie intake at a certain rough number. If I’m going out to lunch with friends, I can have a wonderful hearty lunch, because this will be the one big meal of the day. As long as the calories for the total day come near the mark, all is well. Like to have my major eating done before 5 p.m. too so that I digest better and sleep better, but exceptions are made to this too, since social events do not fit this model very well. With all things in moderation, there is no need to make deals with oneself to have treats. Some treats are part of everyday life. The deal is the moderation itself. Hard for me to understand the mentality of the abstainer (and vice versa of course), it just seems to make life so much harder, because we all want treats.

    • gretchenrubin

      The point about loopholes, and moral licensing, isn’t that a particular habit is wrong. All different kinds of habits work for all different kinds of habits.

      The point is – are loopholes being invoked to excuse behavior that a person really wishes he or she weren’t doing?

      If a person thinks, “it’s fine for me to drink a bottle of wine at dinner, once in a while,” and then does it, then – fine.

      But if a person thinks, “Well, I really don’t want to drink a bottle of wine at dinner [for whatever reason], but in this case, it’s okay, because I deserve it, because I didn’t have wine yesterday” – and then drinks the wine – and then feels REGRET – then that’s when examining loopholes is helpful.

  • susan o

    There’s the old religious tradition of Carnival and Mardi Gras– we can break every rule today because we’ll be fasting and penitent tomorrow (and for the next six weeks).

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  • Christine Martin

    This is absolutely me!! More than anything else I reward myself with food I shouldn’t be eating because I had a bad day, and also because I had a good one. You would think they would cancel each other out, but alas good deeds and bad days somehow always equal french fries!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve heard this from many people…

  • Terraca

    Guilty as charged! Time to stop using this loophole and stay committed. No more excuses.

  • Great series Gretchen. Have you heard of the Baba Shiv Experiment? It demonstrates Moral Licensing perfectly.

    The study was performed at Stanford University and it involved two groups of students. Individuals
    in the first group were given a two-digit number to remember, while
    individuals in the second group were given a seven-digit number to
    remember. Both groups were instructed to remember the number, walk down a
    long hallway, and repeat the number to another experimenter in a room
    down the hall.

    The interesting part is that halfway down the hall, a young woman was waiting by a table with a large plate of fresh orange slices on one side and a large plate of chocolate fudge cake on the other side. She asked each participant to choose which
    snack they would like after completing the memorization task.

    The people
    in the second group, those laboring under the strain of remembering a
    seven-digit number, chose the cake far more often than those who had to
    recall the two-digit number. (

    They subconsciously felt that they had worked hard and deserve something they wouldn’t normally deserve.

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