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Self-licensing or the licensing effect is relying on reasons to justify subsequent gratification (Witt Huberts, Evers, & De Ridder, 2012). In other words, it is the process we go through when we convince ourselves that we deserve an indulgence. This is different than simply lacking will-power, and as such, different strategies need to be used to mitigate the harm this can do to us in terms of our goals. Although self-licensing can be applied to any area of our lives that require self-discipline, I will specifically address how this poses a problem to our health and fitness goals, and what we can do about it.
Imagine you are trying to lose weight and you have begun an exercise routine of 20 minutes of cardiovascular work, three times per week. At the end of the week you finish your third workout, and feel proud of your accomplishments (as you should). When food shopping, you are tempted by a delicious, but fattening and unhealthy, prepared meal. You think about all the exercise you have been doing, and justify getting this meal because "you deserve it." Or perhaps you are not doing any more exercise than usual, but you just had a really rotten week, therefore, you feel that you "deserve" a pint of Ben and Jerry's "DrBo's Bodacious Berry" ice cream. This is different from lacking will-power because there is no struggle with the will. You have given yourself enough reasons to guiltlessly indulge. And indulge you do.
The problem in these scenarios isn't the occasional indulgence where we favor short-term gratification over our long-term goals; it is with the misuse of self-licensing that serves as fallacious justification for the indulgence. Chiou, Yang, and Wan (2011) conducted a study that demonstrated this illusory sense of invulnerability associated with taking what was believed to be vitamin supplements. The participants who thought they were taking vitamin supplements expressed less desire to exercise and more desire to engage in hedonistic activities (i.e., indulge) than the participants who knew they were only taking placebos (inactive sugar pills). This study and other collaborating research illustrate this potentially serious effect of self-licensing: the justification of behaviors that conflict with long-term goals without realizing the extent of the harm that is being done. People who think they deserve that carrot cake because they walked 20 minutes earlier that day are generally unaware of the significant net negative effect on their health. The unfortunate irony is, if they did not walk the 20 minutes earlier that day, they might not have eaten the carrot cake, and they would be better off health-wise.
Here are some suggestions to help you avoid the potentially disastrous effects of self-licensing.
Be aware of self-licensing. Now that you know what it is, keep it in mind when you begin to attempt to justify a behavior that goes against your long-term goals.
Allow yourself calculated self-licensing. If you have changed your diet to eat healthier food and take in fewer calories, then keep track of your calories and food you eat. Allow yourself regular indulgences that still keep you within your goal. For example, if your goal is 2000 calories per day and you plan to indulge in an Italian feast once per week, reduce the calories taken in during the rest of the week, preferably before the feast. By calculating your self-licensing, you remove the biases and the false justifications that result in the overall net loss to your health.
Appreciate the guilt. A problem with self-licensing (the uncalculated kind) is the guilt-free sense of entitlement to the instant-gratification. Sneaking the last piece of cake at 3:00 AM when your family is asleep because you can't resist the sweet song of creamy chocolate being sung to you in your dream, when you know you shouldn't, generally results in a healthy dose of guilt. It is this guilt that deters future similar behavior. Giving yourself reasons as to why you deserve the cake (self-licensing) does not deter future similar behavior, but might even encourage it.
Taking vitamin supplements doesn't mean you can actually eat all you can eat at a buffet, burning 86 calories on a 20 minute walk does not mean that you deserve a 600 calorie piece of apple pie for dessert, and doing little things to improve your health does not earn you the right to do big things to destroy it. We are far from powerless when it comes to self-licensing. Be aware of the effect, critically evaluate your decisions to relax your long-term goals for short-term gratification, and realize that the pain of guilt can be your friend when it acts as a deterrent for future deviations from your goals. You might not deserve that pint of Ben and Jerry's, but you do deserve the opportunity to reach your health and fitness goals.
Chiou, W.-B., Yang, C.-C., & Wan, C.-S. (2011). Ironic effects of dietary supplementation illusory invulnerability created by taking dietary supplements licenses health-risk behaviors. Psychological Science, 22(8), 1081–1086.
Witt Huberts, J. C., Evers, C., & De Ridder, D. T. (2012). License to sin: Self‐licensing as a mechanism underlying hedonic consumption. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42(4), 490–496.