Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #2: Moral Licensing

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For two weeks, I’m doing a special series related to Better Than Before. 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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