What is... | March 27, 2017

What is moral licensing?

After being good, we often give ourselves permission to loosen up a little – or a lot.


Have you ever had an incredibly successful day where you crossed off every item on your to-do list, and felt like a productivity rock star — only to lose the rest of your week to procrastination because you felt like you’d done enough.

Now and again, many of us allow ourselves to blow off some steam because we feel we’ve earned the right to do so. Anyone who has scoffed an entire tub of ice cream within minutes of a high intensity gym session knows exactly how we justify these decisions.

This kind of unreasonable behaviour is called moral licensing. The mental glitch allows you to do something bad or indulgent because you think you’ve been very virtuous. When we feel secure and confident either because of our past behaviour or because we think we deserve it, we are more likely to act in a questionable, unethical or problematic manner without worrying about appearing or feeling immoral.

Though you may not think about it, everyday money decisions are tinged with morality. Is it more moral to spend money on charity than tobacco, alcohol or gambling?

Can you see my halo?
Decisions are not made in a vacuum – our choices are often influenced by what we have just done in the past or expect to do in the future. Research shows people actively look for opportunities to present themselves in a positive light, especially if they know they might need a moral “license” for something dubious later on. 

Yale school of management and university of Miami marketing professors Uzma Khan and Ravi Dhar asked people to choose between buying a luxury item, such as a pair of designer jeans, or a necessity, such as a vacuum cleaner, and assume they could only afford one thing at the moment. Those who had first been asked to imagine doing something altruistic like volunteering for a charity chose the luxury item more often than those who hadn’t. Put simply, those who imagined themselves doing good things felt they had proven their moral standing and earned the right to make more frivolous and decadent choices with less guilt.

What’s morality got to do with my money?
Though you may not think about it, everyday money decisions are tinged with morality. Is it more moral to spend money on charity than tobacco, alcohol or gambling? What about your holiday splurges and indulgent shopping sprees; do they often leave you with feelings of guilt?

Research has found that mere exposure to money can trigger dubious intentions or less than charitable behaviour

When our self-esteem is high or when we feel we have sacrificed a lot, it’s natural to feel we deserve a break. This mind set can scupper our savings or long-term life goals such as retirement plans. Let’s suppose right now you are saving 10% of your wages each month for a house deposit. You’ve been eating at home, avoiding all temptations to spend, not going out with friends and even cutting back on going to the cinema. After a while, because you’ve been so good with your money, you are tempted to cut yourself some slack. So you skip a month and spend your monthly savings on a weekend away and, because you had such a good time, old habits return – and you end up not saving after all.

It can backfire too
However, indulging yourself can also backfire, especially if it has a negative impact on our view of ourselves. This can lead to “moral cleansing” – which is when we do something to compensate, in an attempt to regain some of that threatened or lost self-worth. 

So next time you’re eyeing up an extravagant purchase, it could be worth thinking about what you’ve just been doing and whether your impulse to splurge is influences by something more than just the price tag.

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