How to Avoid Self Sabotage and Maintain Willpower at the Hardest of Times

| By Terence Brake

It’s that time of year when we should be reminding ourselves of a mental phenomenon that is a form of self-sabotage: rewarding ourselves. 

Does this scenario seem familiar?

“Of course, I can have another piece of pie because I went for a two mile walk this afternoon!”

Unfortunately, it’s very familiar to me, and I know I’m not alone.  Psychologists and marketers call this moral self-licensing, licensing effect, or moral credentials, and it’s not limited to diet and exercise regimes.  In everyday life, moral self-licensing is often accompanied with a spoken or unspoken phrase like, “I deserve this.” 

We are all faced with the ethical uncertainties of social life, and past good deeds liberate us to engage in behaviors that could be considered problematic, e.g. unethical, biased, dysfunctional.  Here’s how researchers at Stanford University put it:

“When people are confident that their past behavior demonstrates compassion, generosity, or a lack of prejudice, they are more likely to act in morally dubious ways without fear of feeling heartless, selfish, or bigoted.”

Here are some examples of moral self-licensing:

  1. In Canada, participants in a study were asked to shop either in a green (ecologically-friendly) or conventional online store.  In one experiment, those who shopped in a green store shared less money in a dictator game that followed.  Another experiment allowed participants to lie (about their performance on a task) and cheat (take more money out of an envelope than they earned).  More lying and cheating was demonstrated among the green shoppers.
  2. Another study found that people give less to charity if they’ve just thought of themselves in terms of morally positive traits.
  3. Researchers have found that people are more willing to express prejudiced attitudes when their past behavior has established them as non-prejudiced.  Studies have shown that people who have just expressed strong disagreement with sexist statements, for example, are more likely to hire a man for a job in a male-dominated industry.  Those feeling secure in their non-sexist self-image pay less attention to the possible biases they might have.

Although Malcolm Gladwell can be accused of oversimplifying, he sees the 2016 election in the context of moral licensing: “Having taken the extraordinary step of electing a black man as president . . . Americans feel free to indulge every dark impulse inside their hearts, because they think they have proven to the world how open minded they are.”

In what he called “Pay or Pray,” economist Jonathan Gruber found that when the tax code changed in the early 1990s to make deductions for charitable giving more valuable, the average churchgoer gave more money, but attended fewer actual services.

A study in the UK showed that people who make their homes more energy efficient are more likely to turn up the heat or keep it on longer.

One study found that merely considering donating to a charity increases participants’ desire to go on a shopping spree.

It is a well-known fact that people will often gain weight after joining a gym.  The feeling of being ‘virtuous’ after a workout helps us rationalize going for a Big Mac.  Unfortunately, the short-term rewards we give ourselves often turn out to be detrimental to our longer-term goals, and often they involve those human cravings for fat and sugar.   

The author of “The Happiness Project”, Gretchen Rubin, says that moral licensing acts like a loophole.  It enables us to squirm out of solidifying new habits like working out, eating better, or getting a side project off the ground.  When we do, say, or even think about doing something good, we are more likely to give ourselves permission to do whatever we want – “Hey, I’ve earned it.”

So, what is to be done?  Here are a few suggestions based on the work of Prof. Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University and author of The Willpower Instinct:

  • Paying Attention: ‘Know Thyself is as important today as it was to the ancient Greeks.  Self-knowledge is the foundation of self-control.  Struggling with self-control is not some weakness of our character, but a lack of understanding of how our minds work.  Knowing how you are likely to give in to temptation allows you to avoid the traps leading to willpower failure.  Catch yourself sooner by looking at those internal impulses.
  • Pause and Plan: The pause and plan response gives you the freedom to choose.  It creates a space for thoughtful action rather than chasing an impulse.
  • Train the Brain: Think of willpower as a muscle that needs exercise.  Make small commitments to practicing and strengthening self-control.  If we try to run a ‘willpower marathon’ everyday, we will fail.  We should push our limits, but pace ourselves.
  • Framing: Instead of focusing on the progress you’ve made toward your goal, focus on your commitment to achieving it.  We are all too quick to use progress as an excuse for slacking off.  Also stop moralizing by putting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels on behaviors.  As McGonigal says, “when you tell yourself that exercising, saving money, or giving up smoking is the right thing to do – not something that will help you meet your goals – you’re less likely to do it consistently.”  We resist rules.
  • Identity:  Embed your goals into your sense of identity so that actions that undermine them no longer seem like a treat, but a betrayal of who you are.
  • Think Future: Create a future memory; neuroscientists have shown that imagining the future helps people delay gratification.  Our inability to see the future clearly leads toward temptation and procrastination.

Let me give Kelly McGonigal the final word:

“Self-awareness is the one ‘self’ you can always count on to help you do what is difficult, and what matters most.  And that is the best definition of willpower I can think of.”

 

OK . . . now own up who just shouted PASS the PIE!!