When Does Moral Licensing Become Toxic?

February 28, 2019 • Rehack Team


Maybe you’ve let yourself take a break from exercising after meeting your workout goal for three days straight. It’s not unheard of to give yourself leeway on a social media cleanse, either, as a reward for good behavior. Allowing yourself to deviate from your goal after success is called moral licensing.

Breaks aren’t necessarily damaging, but these kinds of excuses can develop into a problem. Moral licensing is a way people bargain with themselves between positive and negative decisions — essentially, a good act covers up a bad one.

In some cases, this mindset leads to a pattern of moral licensing. Repeatedly letting yourself fall into this trap is dangerous. When does it get to the point of being harmful? The following explanation shows when this perspective is damaging to you and those around you.

Actions Reflect Self-Image

Your personal understanding of right and wrong can affect how you see yourself. This relationship between your moral compass and your self-image can direct your behavior. People want others to respect them, so they maintain certain actions to reinforce their image.

When you want to be put together, you might show others the organized side of you and hide signs of forgetfulness or laziness. In this scenario, you associate nonorganized habits as immoral.

However, this attitude becomes harmful when you make up your mind that you deserve something contrary to your usual moral sensibility. If you decide you should get a lazy day, you rationalize the action to defend your impulse.

People feel more comfortable with shirking their moral duty when they’ve just done something positive. Demonstrating this ego boost, one research study gave participants an assignment to write a personal story using words about positive or negative traits. Those who focused on positive traits gave one-fifth of the donation amount as those who opted to write on negative ones.

Self-Control Suffers and Impulse Decisions Rise

When your moral boundaries shift, you gather confidence from your typically virtuous behavior to make this error acceptable. As this tendency reoccurs, you don’t watch out for negative practices as much. People let things slide and promote their interests over others.

A research study showed that those who bought an eco-friendly product cheated more on a test afterward. Participants were paid for the number of questions they answered correctly, and these environmentally conscious people gave in to this tempting reward.

Moral licensing causes impulsive practices, derailing you from your normal lifestyle. Pushing consequences aside is toxic and unsustainable, and people can find themselves caught up in actions that go against their conscience.

It Leads to Serious Mindset Shifts

Your expectations for yourself can get skewed after acting contrary to your principles. However, you place more responsibility on your future self to get back in line with your goals. Believing better judgment is ahead is another way moral licensing is detrimental.

Research shows that moral licensing is connected to prejudice and sexism. One study gave participants the chance to contradict sexist comments. After this, most expressed a preference for a man for a job opening in a male-dominated field, although there was a minority candidate with better qualifications.

Serious changes in your mentality can happen when you let moral licensing take hold. Because it’s difficult to identify when you’re affected by moral licensing, most don’t notice when they take on this damaging view.

How to Avoid a Moral Licensing Mindset

Looking out for warning signs of moral licensing in yourself and others is beneficial. Here are a few ways to manage your self-awareness and stay away from this bargaining move:

  • Ask for feedback from those you trust.
  • Prioritize your long-term goals and conduct routine checks to evaluate your progress.
  • Don’t think of all actions as good and bad. Think of an action that adds to your goals as reflective of your dedication instead.

Reject Moral Licensing

Although moral licensing is hard to detect, you can help yourself grow and meet your goals by considering your motives. Dodge this destructive way of thinking and pursue mindfulness instead.