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  • Kit Allowitz

Moral-licensing …...a sneaky instigator in You + I Pulling the Chicken Switch

Question: Have you ever justified an unwise action at work or in your personal life based on credit from an earlier wise action?

What if I boldly state that we do it all the time?

This kind of behavior is called moral-licensing.

Statement: Moral-licensing contributes to Pulling the Chicken Switch! If you’re just checking my articles for the first time, Pulling the Chicken Switch is acting against to commitments we have made after the emotions of making those prior commitments has passed.

Moral-licensing is simply: The mental inconsistency allowing you and I to do something deemed bad (unwise) or indulgent because you think you’ve been very virtuous (done wise earlier).

When we feel secure and confident either because of our past behavior 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.

That’s moral licensing for you.


Question: Where does moral licensing show up for you?

Here are some examples of moral-licensing, do any of these hit home?

  • You give up sugar (wise) by having a Diet Cola ……then pair it with a greasy Big Mac and fries (unwise).

  • You buy a tankless water heater (wise for the environment) ……and then take longer shower* (unwise). *Proven data. Davis, Lucas W. (2008). “Durable goods and residential demand for energy and water.”

  • You get the big project file sorted at work (good)……and then buzz around on Facebook at work for 1 hour (bad?).

  • You work out in the morning, burning 800 calories (good)……and then buy a sugary Starbucks Chai tea latte on the way to work (bad?).

  • You put in a hard work day at the office (wise)……and then skip a workout that night, sit on couch and watch sitcom reruns (unwise).

  • You buy efficiency washer and dryer (wise)…… and then wash your clothes more often* (unwise). *Proven. Davis, Lucas W. (2008). “Durable goods and residential demand for energy and water.”

  • You decide to go from couch to a 5K on Saturday (wise and fun) ……and then go out and buy running shoes (wise) that are way more than your budget allows (unwise).

Shoot, in some cases, moral-licensing occurs even more subtly. At times we only need to think about doing virtuous things and it triggers moral-licensing. In one study*, participants were asked to select from a list of charitable organizations for which they were willing to consider volunteering for three hours. Later, these participants, alongside other participants who had not been asked to consider volunteering were asked if they would buy designer jeans or an identically priced vacuum cleaner, if they had enough money to buy only one. Participants who were asked to imagine having committed the charitable act before shopping were more than twice as likely to choose the jeans over the functional vacuum. The authors of this study stated that “People don’t even have to do good for this moral-licensing effect to happen.” *Khan, Uzma: Dhar, Ravi (2006). “Licensing effect in consumer choice.” Journal of Marketing Research.

Crazy huh?

I seem to be particularly susceptible to this moral-licensing phenomenon after a long and rewarding day of doing standup training. My most predictable time spent at WingStop (A restaurant where amazing mouthwatering chicken wings are served. The wings are great, but it’s not great for my eating health commitment) can be found the evening after my last day of teaching classes. Maybe that’s willpower depletion, maybe I’m just Pulling the Chicken Switch, or maybe it’s I see my training performance as ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’ and therefore WingStop here I come!!

Even as I write this article, having just competed in a tough long Triathlon distance race over the weekend, I totally moral-licensed away a big bowl of ice cream with oodles and oodles of chocolate syrup last night.

How illogical, right?

That’s moral-licensing for you.

What are your moral licensing hot spots?

Question: Ever gone to the big local gym to get a solid workout ……and then ride the elevator to the second floor of the gym to hit the weights?

Question: Ever wisely handled a heated situation at work (yeah, you did something good and wise and even decided to go so far as saying you honored your companies fiduciary code) …... and then fly off the handle when you get home with the kids?

Michael Rosenwald’s article in the Washington Post is timely, “We drive SUV’s to see Al Gore’s speeches on global warming.”

Why does this happen?

Why do we let it happen?

Do we let it happen?

Do we know it’s happening?

The simple response is No and Yes. No: We often are not initially aware that our brain is playing this trick of trading a ‘good’ act for a later ‘bad’ act. However, with awareness comes choice.


Just creating awareness around this phenomenon can very often be enough ‘kindling’ to smother out the issue and then act differently. The process of bringing the subconscious into the conscious is available in all sorts of arena’s in life.

Consider the illogical nature of doing something wise or good in your life (you choose the arena: personal, professional, spiritual, mental, physical, etc.) only to sabotage your efforts by allowing moral licensing to creep in.

Often the craziest connections are made at the subconscious level around moral licensing. For example, why can I help an elderly woman at the store, hold the door for her, even assist her with getting her groceries in the car, (this takes very little effort or willpower), then somehow justify shortly thereafter hitting Starbucks for a loaded sugary Grande hot chocolate with 2% milk and Whip? (Worth a painful unnecessary 400 calories).

Moral licensing creeps in all around us. In a 2011 study published by researches in Taiwan, they found that people who take multivitamin pills, especially those who believe that they are receiving significant health benefits from them, are more prone to subsequently engaging in later unhealthy activities.


Participants in the study* were divided into two groups, both given placebo pills, one group were informed the pills were placebo, the other group told the pills were multivitamin supplements. Survey results showed that the group who believed they had been given real multivitamin supplements were predisposed to smoking more cigarettes, believed they were less invulnerable to harm, injury and disease then the group that knew it was just placebo. This second group of fooled subjects were also less likely to exercise, choose healthy food and engage more often in “activities that involve instant gratification, but could pose long-term health hazards”. Lastly this group of fooled subjects, the more supplements they took, the less likely they were to exercise, and smoking was highest among subjects who expressed a conscious belief that multivitamins increased health. *”The flip side of dietary supplement use” Chiou, Yang & Wan (2011)

Seems nuts huh?

Challenge for You: I’d like you to just for a moment think of your own professional and personal life, does occasion for moral licensing creep in? Can it? Should it? Will it?

Perhaps just being aware of the effect can put a space between the stimulus of the wise/good act and the potential for the later unwise/bad act.

Less chicken switching.

More of following through on commitments and actions you make after the emotions of making those commitments has passed.

Point: Be aware of moral licensing. It’s tricky. It can mess with our mojo. It can create obstacles to our true end in mind.

I publish a daily short 1.5 minute Nugget related to Not Pulling the Chicken Switch. You should check it out!

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