Updated: Oct 15
Several weeks ago, after having spent 103 straight days with my family, I asked my husband to give me a list of errands that had gone undone throughout the lockdown and hightailed out of the house for 8 hours of wanton, be-masked, errand-running.
While I am not normally giddy at the prospect of getting emissions inspections completed on my car or visiting the post office, the idea of spending an entire day away from those I loved best was just what I needed to remember why I love them best.
However, I did more than just cross items off the to-do list. I also bought several bags of stationery supplies I didn’t need, had a burger, fries, and a soda for lunch, and came home bearing a carton of ice cream for us all to share. While none of these choices were particularly terrible, they were not part of my usual spending and eating habits.
I fell victim to one of the classic blunders: the Self-Licensing Effect.
The Self-Licensing Effect (also known as Moral Licensing, among other aliases) is when we give ourselves permission to be “bad” because we’ve been so “good” about something else. When you’ve given something up, you subconsciously give yourself credit for the sacrifice and free license to make up for the loss.
It’s why we can eat a salad for lunch and feel comfortable having a hot fudge sundae for dinner. Its why hybrid car owners drive less efficiently than owners of gas guzzlers. It’s why we underestimate how far 6 feet is when we’re wearing a mask.
In my case, I had been so “good” for such a long time—avoiding everything from coffee with friends to art classes to dining out with my handsome husband—that I felt “entitled” to spend unnecessary money, eat junk food that I usually avoid, and provide the family with a gallon of Moose Tracks ice cream for a completely unnecessary mid-week treat.
Here’s how to avoid your own self-licensing when you feel constricted by the continued pandemic-related changes to our lives:
The Mental Ledger
We have a tendency to carry around a mental account book for our own behavior. Sometimes such an accounting is something we are consciously aware of. For instance, several years ago, a friend, upon ordering a refill, told me: “I can have a second beer with dinner tonight because I ran two miles this morning.”
I engaged in similar moments of mental accounting the year I ran a half marathon. Of course I could enjoy deep-fried macaroni and cheese while out with my girlfriends. I was training for a 13.1-mile race!
However, we don’t always explicitly think through the behavioral quid pro quo like my friend and I did during our running days.
For example, researchers have found that consumers who purchase more energy-efficient appliances tend to overconsume while using the appliances, thereby negating the environmental (and financial) benefits of greening their home.
Installing a tankless water heater only to take longer showers or switching to energy-efficient light bulbs only to leave them burning all night is hardly the act of a rational consumer. Few such consumers are thinking “it’s okay to take a 45-minute shower since I now have a more efficient water heater!” Instead, their mental ledger is unconsciously giving them a pass on doing something they normally would avoid.
Ultimately, the mental ledger causes us to use the second most destructive word in the English language:
Why “Deserve” Is Dangerous
Right now, we are all in untenable positions of one kind or another. Either we are stuck at home and starved for connection (or solitude) or we are required to work in potentially dangerous situations. We may be overwhelmed with too much unstructured time and fear for our financial future, or we may be overwhelmed with not enough down time and fear for our future health. Add an overwhelming news cycle, and we’re all dealing with mental ledgers that are very much in the red.
This is where the word “deserve” comes into play. With these untenable situations sapping our mental energy, we might feel like we deserve to overspend or overstimulate. And if spending a little more on something that makes you happy will help you get through a global pandemic; I am certainly not one to suggest you stop. The problem is framing it as something you deserve.
Here’s why: when you make a decision based on what you feel you deserve, you are making a value judgment on yourself. If you deserve something, that means you could be undeserving of it. That’s no way to feel good about yourself. You are not put on this Earth to earn the right to be happy. You are neither deserving nor undeserving of happiness, luxury, or comfort.
The other problem with the word deserve is that it is defined as something you necessarily lack. Saying to yourself “I deserve a new plasma TV” or “I deserve a treat” means you are placing yourself in a position where you what you already have is not enough. This is no recipe for happiness, because there will always be another thing you feel you deserve at some point, whether or not you splurge on the thing you feel you deserve right now. Defining purchases and treats as something you deserve is a way to feel resentful, rather than satisfied.
Erasing the Mental Ledger
The mental ledger is based on the concept of deserving something because of our “good” actions. So how do we avoid a spending (or other behavioral) frenzy in response to the huge sacrifices we have made and continue to make during this pandemic?
The answer is simple: We need to stop our mental accounting all together.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Much of these self-licensing choices occur outside our conscious planning and thought. If you don’t know that you are engaging in self-licensing behavior, it’s nearly impossible to stop yourself from seeking out what you feel like you deserve.
However, creating identity-based habits can help us navigate away from the mental ledger method of looking at the world.
We’ve talked before about how identity-based habits can help you meet your goals. Habit and productivity expert James Clear explains that with an identity-based habit, instead of starting with the outcome you want to reach, you start by deciding what kind of person you want to be.
For instance, you might decide that you want to be the sort of person who sends extra money to your student loan every week. This identity is something you can prove to yourself over and over again. Each week, you have another opportunity to send extra money to Sallie Mae, even if it’s as little as $10. And as you continue to exercise that identity-based habit, you will become the kind of person who does send extra money toward your student loan, increasing your confidence and reinforcing the habit and identity. Deciding that you want to be this person will make it more likely that you pay off your student loans quickly than deciding that you will reach a specific outcome in a specific time period.
Identity-based habits can also help you to dismantle your mental ledger-based thinking. For instance, let’s say your identity-based habit is that you are the sort of person who cares about your impact on the environment. That means you are more likely to exercise habits that support that identity: both by installing the tankless water heater and by taking shorter showers.
Instead of seeing a long shower as something you deserve because you took on the expense and work of installing a greener water heater, a lengthy shower will simply be an action that doesn’t fit your identity. You will be less likely to engage in self-licensing behavior because that behavior doesn’t fit your identity.
Similarly, if you commit to being the sort of person who is careful with spending decisions, you will be much less likely to make purchases because you feel like you deserve them. Each spending decision you make will give you a chance to prove to yourself that you make such choices carefully. Feeling like you “deserve” a treat does not fit in with that identity, and it will be easier to stop the habit of making self-licensing purchases.
Acknowledging How Hard This Is
We’re in a really tough moment for humanity. No one is unaffected by the major changes happening in our world, and it can be easy to see the difficulties of 2020 as free license to indulge ourselves.
But there is no balance to be found in self-licensing behavior. Giving yourself permission to overspend, overconsume, overstimulate, or otherwise grab for something you feel like you “deserve” will do nothing to make this season of our lives any easier to bear. Instead, self-licensing behavior is likely to make you feel resentful, unworthy, or unsatisfied.
Making well-considered choices about what kind of person you want to be and what actions and choices will bring you joy, particularly in tough times, is a clearer path through this pandemic and unrest.
We don’t need to make this harder on ourselves than it already is.