The Strange Way Being “Good” Hurts Your Willpower
Moralizing your choices as good or bad opens you up to the risk of moral licensing.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Nir's Note: This guest post is by Paulette Perhach. Paulette writes about finances, psychology, technology, travel, and better living for the likes of The New York Times, Elle, and Slate.
I learned how to respect authority from my father. At the top of a huge water slide at a theme park, he put me, my siblings and cousins in a huge, round raft, then started to get in himself. "No sir, that's too many," said the attendant. My father simply replied, "Hup, too late!" Then jumped in and shoved off. We caught air on the bumps, making the ride much more wild than it would have been, had we followed the rules.
Dodging the regulations of anyone with a whistle or a name tag became my favorite game. I avoided homework in sixth grade and, when I had a solid 0 percent in the class at midterm and my parents grounded me for six weeks, I filibustered my way out of my punishment by the second weekend. For years at school, I did the least amount of work possible, then crammed for tests. In high school, I had the best fake ID.
But, the same sass and laziness I used with my home life got me nearly fired from almost every job I had in high school. When I graduated, I stood in a cap and gown, knowing I was supposed to be educated, but that I only looked educated on paper. Drinking too young, as well, had its consequences. I'm lucky nothing terrible happened, but I still wish I hadn't been so out of control so young.
As an adult, I learned that there are consequences, and then there are Consequences. Little consequences are the human-imposed rules that I can work around, hack, or ignore. They are a parent's training ground for real life, a boss's way to make sure the organization runs smoothly, and a government's standards for building a society. They are human, and so they are flawed and breakable. I find it fun to find the cracks in the system and sneak through.
Consequences with a capital C are life's natural effects of our human actions. I can sneak past the guard and ignore the sign at the aquarium that says don't touch the marine life, but that doesn't mean a turtle won't bite my finger off. I can smoke cigarettes when no one's looking and douse myself in perfume to hide the smell, but I can't sneak a smoking habit past lung cancer. Much later than it should have taken me, I finally understood that discipline is the way you obey the laws of the universe.
But still, I don't think I'll ever rid myself of the part of me that loves to be bad. There is the Perfect Paulette I know I should be, and want to be. That woman I could be just six months out: more fit, more dedicated to her craft, more chic and not so loud. Less likely to order the steak burrito with sour cream and guac. When I move toward her, by reading, writing, working, yoga-ing, or meditating, I feel "good." When I cut out to go to a band, join my friends at the beach, or hop in the car for four-day weekend, I feel "bad" in that way that induces guilt, but also, alternately, satisfies my inner Bart Simpson, laughing and thinking, "Suckers."
The problem arises when the only sucker is me. As an adult, I have no more teachers, no parents as guardians. I'm my own boss, and would love to keep it that way. The important distinction is that the me who is the sucker is Me Tomorrow or Me Ten Years From Now. Entirely separate from Me Today.
"When reflecting on the future self, the brain's activation is identical to when it is considering the traits of another person," writes Kelly McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct, a book that has helped me change the way I see and move toward my goals. So the Paulette of Next Year can feel like another kind of authority figure, someone trying to make me do something I don't want to do today.
When I screw myself over, by getting in debt, being hungover, or procrastinating on my work until it becomes a flurry of panic typing, I rail against this person inside. "You're the worst!" I tell myself.
According to McGonigal, I'm going about this all wrong. Firstly, she says, berating yourself for being "bad," is only more likely to keep you from acting in the way you want to act. Guilt is a stressor, firstly, and stress weakens your willpower.
Secondly, by moralizing my behavior, labeling it as "good" or "bad," I'm opening myself up to the risk of moral licensing.
"When you do something good, you feel good about yourself," writes McGonigal. "This means you're more likely to trust your impulses--which often means giving yourself permission to do something bad."
We don't really want to be that good, her research has found. I'm just not that motivated to be Perfect Paulette. I really just want to be Good Enough Paulette. So, for example, if I have a kale smoothie for breakfast, a behavior I label as "good," then I'm more likely to feel like I deserve to be "bad" for lunch and go for the McChunky Fatty Special. As Nir Eyal points out in his post about why fitness apps make us fat, "exercise causes many people to overeat by giving them permission to indulge."
McGonigal cites a study in her book that showed that people who felt they had expressed statements proving they cared about equality were more likely later to display sexist or racist biases. People are more likely to cheat and steal after they've purchased products that are good for the environment. People donate 60 percent less to charity after they've been primed to think about a time they acted morally.
So I every time I high-five the angel on my shoulder because I worked out or finished an article, it induces a little wink to the devil on my other shoulder and a knowing "meet me later for a pizza and a Netflix binge" nod. Because we deserve it. Meanwhile, when I average out my habits, I'm no closer to Perfect Paulette.
"Anything you moralize becomes fair game for the effect of moral licensing," writes McGonigal. "If you tell yourself that you're 'good' when you exercise and 'bad' when you don't, then you're more likely to skip the gym tomorrow if you work out today. Tell yourself you're 'good' for working on an important project and 'bad' for procrastinating, and you're more likely to slack off in the afternoon if you made progress in the morning. Simply put: Whenever we have conflicting desires, being good gives us permission to be a little bit bad."
What you should do instead, says McGonigal, is label your behavior as either getting you closer or further away from you really want. Instead of focusing on the progress you've made by being "good," focus on how committed you are to your goal, and remember the why behind it. Any time you catch the voice in your head berating yourself for being "bad," remind yourself that you are only increasing the likelihood that you will repeat this undesirable behavior.
When I remind myself that whatever I'm doing is only getting me further from what I want, there is no imaginary future boss that I'm sneaking past. There is only myself, in the now, hoping to enjoy the fruits of my labor in the future, instead of the unpaid bill from my neglect. I feel a certain shift in my attitude away from the enjoyment of breaking the rules, and fully realize that no one is being fooled except myself. It feels like maturing, a process long-awaited by my family. This shift has taken the joy out of being bad and replaced it with a centered knowledge that I am the one taking care of myself for my deepest reasons. I'm not Perfect Paulette, and never will be, but I'm me, today, taking responsibility for me, tomorrow, not because it is good or bad, but simply because it's what feels most integrated with the life I envision for myself.
Here's the gist:
- Moralizing your choices as good or bad opens you up to the risk of moral licensing.
- Berating yourself for being bad when you make the wrong choices only increases your chances of messing up again.
- Labeling your behavior as getting you either closer or further away from your ultimate goals is a powerful way to get around moral licensing.
- Congratulating yourself on your progress induces the effect of moral licensing. Using your progress to instead remind yourself how committed you are to your goal will re-up your willpower to achieve it.
- Catching the inner voice berating your past behavior and turning it toward planning a different outcome for the next day will make you less likely to repeat that undesirable behavior and get what you really want in the long run.