Moral Licensing: When “Rewards” Are Sabotage

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you ever reward yourself with a snack when you’ve done well on your diet? Why do people tend to think that being “good” gives us moral permission to be “bad”?

Moral licensing is when people tell themselves they deserve an indulgent treat because they’ve been good. However, much of the time the “reward” is actually counterintuitive to the person’s goal.

Here is why moral licensing goes against self-control.

Why Morality Doesn’t Apply to Willpower  

Too often we frame our willpower struggles in terms of morality. We give ourselves credit for our perceived willpower successes, and we beat ourselves up for our perceived failures. But applying the labels of virtue and vice to our self-control choices sets us up to fall into four common willpower-failure traps: 

  1. Utilizing moral licensing, we tell ourselves we deserve an indulgent treat because we’ve been good. 
  2. Under the “I’m Making Progress” trap, we tell ourselves we’ve already taken a few steps toward our goal, so why not take a break? 
  3. With “Too Much Optimism,” we reward ourselves for our potential good behavior in the future—even if we never follow-through. 
  4. Under the halo effect, we believe that virtuous choices cancel out bad ones. 

The Moral Licensing Trap 

Moral licensing is a way of telling ourselves that being “good” gives us moral permission to be “bad.” Sometimes if we just convince ourselves that we’re making progress toward our Personal Willpower Challenge, we’ll fall off the wagon. We take a few steps in the right direction—for example, we might stop smoking or drinking alcohol for several days—and then we tell ourselves we deserve a little “treat.” But by choosing indulgence as a reward for good behavior, we’re actually sabotaging what we really want—our bigger, long-term goal. 

The research: It seems illogical, but many of us indulge in this kind of fuzzy thinking. Studies have shown that when people merely considered donating money to charity—without actually doing it—it made them more likely to buy something for themselves. Chronic dieters often find that exercise actually derails their diet programs because after they work out for an hour, they believe they deserve a food reward. 

The research: When subjects in studies are asked to talk about a recent time when they resisted temptation, they will describe an incident of “good behavior.” When they finish talking, researchers give them the opportunity to indulge in something that’s contrary to their long-term goals. They typically seize the opportunity, and researchers believe it’s because they’re feeling good about themselves. Describing their “good behavior” leads them toward moral licensing. 

But when subjects are asked to describe why they recently resisted temptation, they don’t usually follow up their response by indulging. Remembering the “why” is key to self-control. People remember they resisted temptation because they wanted to—and that makes them continue to want to.  

When “Rewards” Are Actually Sabotage

If you want to lose weight, breaking your diet by eating five donuts—after a week of noshing on hard-boiled eggs and carrot sticks—isn’t a reward. It’s a derailment. Telling ourselves we’ve been good and we deserve a treat for good behavior may not matter in some scenarios, but when we apply this thinking to our big willpower goals, it’s sabotage. 

Moral licensing deceives us into making poor decisions and acting against our best interests. You set your own willpower challenge, right? So why would you act against your own interests? To avoid the perils of moral licensing, your brain needs to carefully separate true moral dilemmas from merely challenging problems. When we view our willpower challenges in moral terms, we fall into the moral licensing trap. But when we realize that our Personal Willpower Challenges are not moral issues—they’re merely personal goals—then it’s illogical to reward ourselves for “being good” or punish ourselves for “being bad.” 

Moral Licensing: When “Rewards” Are Sabotage

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

One thought on “Moral Licensing: When “Rewards” Are Sabotage

  • December 21, 2021 at 1:32 pm

    There is such a thing as good and bad. Will people stop putting them in scare quotes? I have never seen one good argument for them not existing and plenty to think they do.


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