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Happiness Tip: Don’t Pat Your Own Back

Have you heard of the “licensing effect”?


Moral licensing occurs when we behave virtuously and then “cancel out” our good deeds by doing something naughty.  Whether it’s as large as completing a major project, or as small as taking a vitamin, when we behave in line with our goals and values, ironically, we risk back-sliding.

Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to feel that healthy or virtuous activities entitle us to partake in less-good-for-us activities. Smokers will smoke more, for example, when they believe they’ve just taken a Vitamin C pill. Similarly, philanthropists tend to give away less money after they’ve been reminded of their humanitarian attributes. One study even showed that when people buy eco-friendly products, they were more likely to cheat and steal!

Instead of giving yourself a pat on the back for your own good behavior, avoid the “licensing effect” by reflecting on your goals and values rather your accomplishment. Why did you take that vitamin? What larger mission are you trying to fulfill? Questions like these can help us stay focused on what we are trying to achieve instead of sabotaging our own efforts.

Take Action: Reflect on your own behavior. Do you tend to let your moral acts — or progress made towards a goal — license less-good actions? If so, write yourself a new mantra to focus on. For example, if you are trying to give up sugar, but you notice you are more likely to eat a cookie after you’ve had a kale salad for lunch, make your post lunch mantra “I value my own health, and I eat healthfully to support it.”

Join the Discussion: Do you think you use positive behaviors to justify negative ones? Share with us by commenting below!