If Only We Could Harness the Ingenuity Used to Justify Bad Behavior

One of the mind’s niftier tricks is finding loopholes in the rules it has created to keep us from engaging in bad behavior. The most interesting of these loopholes may be moral- or self- licensing — the process by which doing something good make it acceptable for you to do something bad. Recently psychologists have extended the power of licensing by showing that it doesn’t just have to be you who does something good, you can also earn the right to be bad when others in your loosely defined group do something good.

A team of researchers led by Northwestern’s Daniel Effron sought to further extend the power of licensing by proposing that even if you haven’t done something good, you can license yourself to misbehave by simply thinking about how you avoided doing something bad. Furthermore, they proposed that in cases where the behaviors people avoided aren’t all that bad, people will to exaggerate the terribleness of whatever they abstained from doing, and that could ultimately lead to a more powerful license to be bad.

We posit that reflecting on counterfactual sins (i.e., less-virtuous alternatives to one’s past behavior) licenses people to act less virtuously. By imagining the sinful road not taken, individuals can reassure themselves of their virtue without having done anything actively virtuous — and can thus license future indulgence.

Unfortunately for individuals wishing to indulge, it is sometimes difficult to imagine how one’s behavior plausibly could have been worse. The dieter may wish to use uneaten cookies to justify eating cake, but perhaps no cookies were previously available. In such situations, we propose, the motivation to indulge can lead people to distort their evaluations of their foregone behaviors. The dieter may convince herself that it would have been unhealthy to eat some low-fat crackers that she previously declined. We propose that when people are tempted to indulge, they will exaggerate the sinfulness of foregone actions, thereby creating the illusion that they previously refrained from bad behavior.

Two experiments provided evidence for their hypotheses. In the first experiment, participants who imagined less healthy alternatives to their recent behavior engaged in fewer weight loss behaviors over the following week and reported weaker intentions to improve their behavior. In the second experiment, participants who were tempted with a cookie rated a snack they had previously declined to eat as more unhealthy than participants who had not been tempted. Together the two experiments suggest that yes, people do “exaggerate the sinfulness of foregone actions,” and that thinking about having avoided those sins can lead to less positive actions in the future.

A common reaction to these types of social psychology studies is to think, “yeah, well, the process they’re concerned with will probably never be pertinent to my life.” But when it comes to research on licensing the opposite tends to be true. Everyday decisions about what to eat, whether or not to exercise, or what friends to spend time with are all influenced by evaluations of previous behavior. More often than not, these evaluations are subject to questionable interpretations or a focus on events that might not seem relevant to an objective observer. So if you ever catch yourself deliberating over a decision by considering everything you did over the past month, it might be best to just stop right there and decide what to do strictly based on the immediate merits of the actions you’re considering.
Effron, D., Monin, B., & Miller, D. (2013). The unhealthy road not taken: Licensing indulgence by exaggerating counterfactual sins Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49 (3), 573-578 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.08.012

One Response to If Only We Could Harness the Ingenuity Used to Justify Bad Behavior

  1. Pingback: How Your Social Status Influences the Way You're Judged - Peer-reviewed by my neurons | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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