Rewarding good food choices with unhealthy foods may be part of human nature.
How often has something like this happened to you? After taking a longer-than-usual run, you reward your efforts with a big bowl of ice cream. Or, because you chose a side salad instead of French fries at lunch, you figure you’ve earned the right to eat a candy bar that afternoon. Maybe the scale says you’ve dropped an extra bit of weight this week, so you figure you “deserve” to double up on the beer and nachos while watching the football game on Sunday. What’s going on here? Why do we reward our good food choices with unhealthy ones?
There’s actually a term for this phenomenon. Those in social psychology call it “self-licensing,” or the “licensing effect.” It’s a term used to describe the way in which we reward good behavior by being indulgent—when we give ourselves permission to be a little bit bad as a reward for doing something good.
Marketing research has uncovered some interesting insights into self-licensing and how it affects our food choices, as well as how we reward those choices. Interestingly, it seems that we may have a natural tendency to balance out our good and bad eating behaviors, without really being aware that we’re doing it.
Here’s the way it works. You probably have a pretty good sense for what makes a healthy diet, and you’re fully aware of how well your usual eating behaviors align with that. As long as your choices fall under your definition of healthy eating, you probably won’t feel this tug-of-war between “good” and “bad” choices all that much.
But let’s say you make a choice that’s more extreme—either really good or really bad. When that happens, you’re more inclined to try to balance it out by swinging to the other extreme. So, after a particularly tough basketball game, you rationalize a reward in the form of four slices of pepperoni pizza. It can work the other way, too, by the way. After eating a huge, fatty dinner, for example, you might try to balance it out by fasting the next day.
This licensing effect appears to work in more subtle ways, too. It turns out that just having the intention of choosing a healthy item can push you to make a less healthy choice. When you look at a menu and are faced with a choice between a side salad or French fries, research suggests that just the fact that you consider eating the salad is enough to make you feel that you’ve been “good,” and that you’ve met your goal of trying to eat well. So, you allow yourself to be a little bit “bad” and choose the fries.
It’s also been shown that when you go to the supermarket, the more healthy food items you toss into your cart, the more likely you are to reward yourself some treats—again, to sort of balance things out. The same thing seems to hold true if you bring your own reusable bags to the store with you. Social psychologists have found that the act of bringing your own reusable bags simultaneously pushes you to buy both “good” and “bad” items. The reasoning is that if you feel virtuous for doing something “good” for the environment by using reusable bags, you might just give yourself permission to by “bad” by purchasing a few less healthy items.
Self-licensing can also get in the way when you’re trying to lose weight. And it helps explain why for some people that the more weight they lose one week, the less weight they’re likely to lose the following week. The way they see it, after being “good” and making big strides toward their weight goal in one week, they deserve to reward themselves by being a little bit “bad” the following week.
It helps to know that self-licensing is part of our nature, and also that most of us don’t eat perfectly all the time. And maybe that’s the key. Maybe when we try to be too perfect with our diets 24/7, we find that the moment we can’t do it anymore, we swing really far in the other direction in an attempt to find some balance. But swaying from one extreme way of eating to the other isn’t really sustainable, and it isn’t balanced.
Instead, we should each aim to find our own path to healthy eating. Not necessarily a straight and narrow one, but a path that’s broad enough to include a range of foods that will keep us healthy, nourished and satisfied.