To illustrate how easy it is to slip into this trap, let me share my very own most recent experience of moral licensing.
You see, last week I wrecked my car. A complete “at fault” accident caused by my own lapse in attention.
Thankfully, no one was hurt, which actually wasn’t shocking since I was barely moving. However, given the caved in appearance of the front of my car and the fact that the autobody shop said I should not have driven it to the shop, I might as well have been driving 50 mph into an oversized metal arrow.
As an aside, from the topic at hand, I’m now in a rental car that says “Famous Potatoes” on the license plate. No offense to anyone from Idaho, but this is not something I would want to be advertising on the back of my car. Nonetheless, I am grateful that my insurance covers a rental car, especially since it has been a week and I still haven’t even gotten an estimate back.
Back to that eventful day, I had just picked up my son’s homeschooling materials and had also received notice from my nanny that she couldn’t work for us anymore. Great, I have no childcare, I am now a homeschooling, working parent, and I wrecked my car.
Enter moral licensing and I wasn’t even trying. Needless to say, I was having a “bad” day, so naturally my mind started looking for ways to create a little joy, i.e “I deserve” a reward. I found myself crafting what this would be and why I didn’t need to feel at all guilty about it given the events of my day.
At a quick glance this mental manipulation may seem harmless, but it often interferes with goals and values we have. This is because we make decisions and judgments based more on a gut feeling than pure logic. If we “feel good” about the decision to break our diet, spend money, etc. it gives us permission and reason to do it even if it flies in the face of our goal to lose weight, save money, and the like.
The next time you find yourself basing a decision on whether you’ve been “good” or had a “bad” day, know that moral licensing is at play and remove it from your decision making process. This will help keep you more consistent with sticking to your goals and living a life aligned with your values.