Home » Happiness Tip: Don’t Pat Your Own Back

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!


  1. happychick says:

    Yes I have rewarded good behaviour with less good behaviour but at least the good behaviour was there to start with. I felt the article didn’t address ways to reward yourself or feel good about yourself and your more desirable behaviour. In fact it left me feeling quite negative which is often a greater trigger for ‘bad’ behaviour be it grabbing a biscuit, a glass of wine or the tv remote control.

    • Christine Carter says:

      It’s a good point: at least the good behavior was there to begin with! I’m sorry the post left you feeling low, because you are right, bad feelings make self-control harder, which is why mistakes are better handled with self-compassion or self-forgiveness. Definitely feel good about your good behavior by refocusing on the goals that you are accomplishing (but not by letting yourself off the hook for those goals).

  2. allforone says:

    I am relieved to hear this is a common occurrence! I have had trouble sticking with certain goals, and I can see how this happens by focusing on my actions, rather than on the purpose of those actions.

  3. Carrie says:

    For sure, which is why I’m reading a blog and commenting right now — I just did a ton of office work. I like your suggestions and will definitely keep them in mind as I craft my resolutions.

    • Christine Carter says:

      Sometimes we just need a break, though, too — resting is not a negative behavior! Glad you were reading the blog. 🙂

  4. Janine Kovac says:

    This is one of my favorite topics (from a cognitive linguistics point of view). In metaphor analysis it’s called “Moral Accounting.” We use phrases such as “a DEBT of gratitude” or say “he OWES me an apology.” We PAY our respects, and on and on. Fascinating!

  5. Nourishing Life says:

    Hi Christine and All, I like doing things from a place of love. I enjoy eating fresh raw kale because of how my brain feels warm and my body feels healthier afterwards. If I eat enough quality kale, I feel satisfied and lose interest in less healthy things. Also, I had given myself time to appreciate kale, since I have discovered that I like what I am used to! Yes, a mantra or message to ourselves to remind us of our purpose and what we wish to achieve could be helpful. Thank you. Best Wishes to All!

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