Overcoming Self Indulgence: Is Self-Licensing Your License to Sin?

We have all been there. You work really hard to lose weight by dieting and then bam!, you have a stressful afternoon and head straight to the Haagen-Daas. You think to yourself, “I have had a hard day and deserve this indulgence.” Mission accomplished: stress relieved and diet derailed.

Or you get to the gym, put in that extra 20 minutes on the stair climber and nail another 20 crunches, only to have your buddies call for a night out on the town. Several hours and too many drinks later, you head home happy and a little concerned about all the calories you just consumed. But hey, no worries…after all, you did put in that extra gym time, right?

If this has happened to you, then you, my friend, have fallen prey to self-licensing.

Self-licensing: Indulging Through Reason

We usually think of over-indulgence in terms of a lack of willpower, such as eating the entire carton of ice cream because we just can’t marshal up the necessary self-control to resist it.

Many studies in psychology have shown that practicing any kind of self-restraint uses up mental and emotional resources. According to ego depletion theory, using up these resources makes it much more difficult to resist the next temptation that comes your way.

A recent study by Jessie de Witt Huberts and her colleagues at the University of Utrecht (The Netherlands), however, has established that we often over-indulge because we reason that it is okay to do so, not because we cannot help it. We can eat that entire carton of ice cream because we just ran for 45 minutes, justifying our indulgence.

De Witt Huberts and her team call this phenomenon self-licensing: luring yourself into thinking you deserve to indulge as long as you think you have “earned” it.

In the study, de Witt Huberts had two teams perform the same amount of work, but managed to trick one team into believing that they did twice the work that the other team had done. Immediately after, the two teams were invited to take part in a separate consumer research study, taste-testing snack foods like M&M, potato chips, and cookies. The end result: the team thinking that they had done twice the work was inclined to eat more of the junk food, an extra 130 calories more on average. Just thinking that they had worked harder, just believing that they had used up their mental resources, lead them to feel hungrier and give themselves license to eat more.

Self-licensing, this license to sin, happens when you are looking for a rationale to justify impulsive or out-of-control behavior (overeating, overdrinking, overspending, etc.) that you know you should not engage in. In most situations, self-licensing is not due to a lack of mental or emotional resources, but the need to justify your behavior.

Self-licensing Can Also Derail Achieving Goals

Not only can we reason our way into over-indulgence, but we can also “reward” ourselves by taking time off for good behavior. This type of self-licensing is a deterrent to progress and will derail your efforts in achieving your goals.

In short, making progress towards reaching our goals often makes us less motivated to work towards achieving them. One study found that students who feel good about the amount of time they have spent studying are more likely to ditch the books and go out with their friends.

Another real world example is the successful business owner who reduces working hours below the average 40 hour work week to reward themselves for the progress they have made.

Self-licensing and the Halo effect – Keeping the Big Picture in Your Sights

This is a trap that many a would-be goal achiever can be lured into: self-licensing and the halo effect. The halo effect occurs when the mind justifies, or places a halo, on one thing because of the good qualities of another thing.

For example, you walk into Wendy’s and order a diet soda with your meal. Your mind uses the low-calorie nature of the diet soda to cast a halo on the entire meal, giving you permission to order that Baconator instead of the healthier salad option.

Think that this does not happen? Studies involving consumers at fast food restaurants have proven that this happens time and time again – everyday, in fact. The more healthy items a restaurant has added to their menu, the higher the sales of non-healthy items like the Baconator and the Big Mac.

You can also find that halo effect in couponing, where you spend more than originally budgeted for shopping due to the “savings halo” of saving money through using coupons.

In short, the halo of our good choice is cast upon our other choices, making us completely delusional about the real outcome of our choices. The brain tends to work this way, using intuition to spur decision-making versus making decisions using cold, hard facts and the overall big picture of attaining our goals.

How to Overcome Excessive Self-Indulgence Caused By Self-Licensing

Understand that everyone engages in self-licensing on a fairly regular basis. However, you do not have to allow self-licensing to become a habit.

Here are a few tips you can use to limit excessive self-indulgence and make progress towards attaining your goals:

  • Examine Your Thoughts:  be mindful of your thoughts and the reasoning behind the selections your are making and, most especially, be honest with yourself.
  • Use Concrete Facts:  make decisions based on data, not intuition. Take into account the overall consequences of the “big picture” outcome, not the immediate justifications.
  • Set Your Sights Squarely On Your Goal:  will the current decision bring you closer to achieving your long-term goal?
  • Avoid Labeling:  stop yourself from looking at decisions as either good or bad behavior. Again, will the decision bring you closer to achieving your goals?
  • Foster a Sense of Commitment:  being committed to a behavior rather than feeling obligated will help you to obtain a goal. Studies have shown that feeling obligated increases the likelihood of self-licensing.

Overcoming self-indulgence caused by self-licensing is not a habit easily broken by quitting cold-turkey. It is better to maintain your behavior and make small changes so that you can better control your decision-making process. Focusing on your goals and your core values will keep you from using self-licensing as a license to sin.


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