Sifting through your email inbox or weekly circular, you’ve just deleted promotional ads offering you everything from 10% to 70% off plus free shipping. You’ve gone grocery shopping and although the cookies and pastries looked very tempting, you went straight to the fruit and vegetable aisle. You had an extra hour at the end of the day, and rather than sitting down to watch television or play videogames, you went for a run or to the gym. All of these small choices add up to a healthier and wealthier lifestyle, but may they be taking an unexpected toll on your mental resources and hence, your self-restraint?
According to ego depletion theory, practicing any kind of self-restraint does use up mental and motivational resources, making it impossible for you to resist the next temptation that comes your way. For example, your hour’s workout at the gym may make you more rather than less likely to have an alcoholic drink, or two or three. Paradoxically, there is a strong relationship between alcohol use and exercise frequency. Ego depletion theory explains this relationship as reflecting people’s inability to resist temptation because they’ve become weakened by the physical, if not mental, exertion of exercising. It’s also possible, of course, that people who drink a good deal of alcohol want to exercise to burn off those extra calories. However, according to Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, it’s the mental exhaustion caused by any strenuous activity that depletes your brain’s ability to fight off temptation.
Not all of people’s bad behavior comes after their expression of self-restraint. There are times that something just looks way too good to turn down and you give in to it without hesitation. You’ve decided you want that impulse buy, and nothing will stop you from plunking down your hard-earned cash. Impulsive behaviors may reflect a breakdown of self-regulation, period. You want something, and you go for it. Unfortunately, the consumer mentality prevalent among much of contemporary society can present you with countless opportunities to stray from the path of what you know would be good for you and your bank account.
You may, then, be just as likely to lower your guard and indulge in naughty behavior whether or not you feel you've used up your mental resources. As observed by Utrecht University psychologist Jessie C. De Witt Huberts and her colleagues in a 2012 European Journal of Social Psychology article, people lose self-control due to impulsive tendencies all the time. They don’t need to have previously engaged in mentally draining activities. They may try to make up for their self-indulgences later, such as by exercising vigorously to work off their night of binge drinking, but while they’re giving into their baser instincts, such considerations are far from their minds.
So you might act impulsively for no other reason than the fact that you can’t control yourself. However, De Witt Huberts also suggests that people over-indulge when they feel they have the “license to sin.” Her research investigates hedonic overconsumption, which is the tendency to overindulge because it feels good. The license to sin, technically called self-licensing, comes into play when you’re looking for a rationale to justify your overeating, overdrinking, overspending, or any impulsive or out-of-control behavior that you “know” you shouldn’t engage in. It’s not that you’re lacking in ego resources, as Baumeister would argue, but that you are almost programmed to come up with justification for what you might otherwise recognize as clearly detrimental to your long-term well-being.
Self-licensing, then, provides mental justification to permit yourself the opportunity to engage in hedonic overcompensation. De Witt Huberts provides examples of this tendency that almost anyone can relate to—the dieter going on a binge after a difficult exam or the ex-smoker having a cigarette to ease job stress. Decision-making theory predicts that given a choice, people will opt for the feel-good alternative that they can easily justify. Our desire for short-term pleasure trumps the possible long-term benefits of self-sacrifice.
Evidence for self-licensing comes from studies that De Witt Huberts cites in which participants were more likely to choose a high-calorie dessert option just after thinking about a time when they practiced some form of self-restraint. They didn’t need actually to deplete their resources (a la Baumeister) but just had to remind themselves of a time when they had been good and this was enough to push them to the feel-good option.
What about when you don’t have to make a choice, but instead when you simply overdo the behavior that feels so good while you’re doing it? Let's say that it’s fine to have one slice of chocolate decadent cake, as long as that slice isn’t too big. What about if you have slice after slice after slice? Maybe you saved money by purchasing one shirt on sale, but by not knowing when to quit, you ended up overspending hopelessly on a bunch of shirts in all colors that you didn’t need at all. People who overindulge aren’t necessarily making a choice between two alternatives, but instead are engaging too heavily in one behavior that becomes a problem only because they’ve can't stop themselves. What keeps them from putting on the brakes?
To test the role of self-licensing in pure overindulgence, De Witt Huberts and her colleagues devised an experimental task that allowed them to manipulate how much effort their participants, young adult females, felt they were exerting. The task involved pushing the first letter on a computer key of each of a string of words. In the experimental condition, the participants completed the task once, were told they needed to do it again to improve the task's reliability, and then completed the same task again. Participants in the control condition completed the task for the same length of time, but with a pause in between the two segments of the task when the experiment stopped and restarted. Thus, the experimental participants were made to feel that their job was more demanding (because they needed to improve the test) than did the control participants (who only thought they were completing a single test). Following the letter judgment task, participants were then offered snack foods that they were purportedly rating for taste and perception. They also rated their degree of hunger.
The findings showed that the women who felt they were putting in more effort actually stated that they felt hungrier after the task than did women in the control condition. All participants had been instructed not to eat for 2 hours before the experiment, so it's unlikely that they were objectively any hungrier depending on the group to which they were assigned. The women in the experimental group also felt they had exerted more effort, even though the amount they exerted was the same as the women in the control group. After taking into account their perceived levels of hunger, De Witt Huberts and her team found that the women who thought their task was more effortful actually ate more snacks than the women in the control condition. Thus, being made to feel that they’d worked harder led these women to behave as though they’d earned their reward.
What was particularly intriguing about this study’s finding was that because the women in the effort condition actually believed they were hungrier than the comparison group, they had two ways to justify their higher consumption. Not only had they worked harder, but they also were hungrier. What is even more fascinating, though, is the way their behavior responded to the experimental manipulation without any overt labeling of what was happening. No one told these women that they were working harder and therefore deserved to grab more snacks at the end. The behavior simply followed on its own accord.
Further replication on more diverse samples clearly would help to establish the generality of the self-licensing effect. However, the authors had a solid theory on which to base their predictions, and seemed to control for a number of possibly competing factors.
To sum up, the self-licensing effect seems to be one that can lead to trouble. Without knowing that you’re falling prey to it, you can lure yourself into thinking you deserve every tempting treat that you encounter as long as you think you’ve “earned” it. To over come it, during moments of weakness pay attention to what you're thinking. Whether it’s while you’re shopping, partying at the end of a tough week, or just helping yourself to another serving of delicious but high-fat food, stop and ask yourself why you’re engaging in this behavior. We know that mindfulness can help improve people’s eating habits. There’s every reason to believe that it can also buy you relief from your other sins of self-indulgence and bring you closer to your self-control goals.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Witt Huberts, J. C., Evers, C., & De Ridder, D. T. D. (2012). License to sin: Self-licensing as a mechanism underlying hedonic consumption. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 490-496. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.861