Self-Licensing: How Good Behavior Leads To Bad Behavior
The following is a guest article by John Fawkes. Am evidence-based trainer and long-time student of Menno’s, John has previously written an article for this site about diet and exercise program compliance, and currently has recently moved his writing on fitness and scientific research to a new Substack blog.
Most of us can relate to one or more of the following experiences:
You buy yourself a cup of sugary Starbucks coffee, telling yourself that you deserve it because you worked out earlier, or because you’ve “eaten healthy” for the past day or two.
You don’t spend much money for a week, so you decide to splurge on a new TV.
You feel like you’ve been kind of an asshole lately, so you do a good deed or donate some money to charity.
I used to call this sort of thing “the balance sheet mentality,” but it has an actual name in psychological research: self-licensing.
In short, when you do something you perceive as good, it provides you with a justification to do something bad. Or conversely, if you do something bad, you feel compelled to do something good to make up for it. The first scenario– the good leasing to the bad– is what most research on self-licensing looks at. The second scenario– making up for bad deeds– happens as well, but we’re often less conscious of it.
Self-licensing can occur with any sort of decision where you, consciously or subconsciously, code some decisions as “good” and others as “bad.” It has been documented in the realms of consumer choice, moral decisions such as racial discrimination, as well as energy usage/conservation.
And of course, it happens a whole lot with regards to health decisions. Left unchecked, self-licensing can exert a sort of “treadmill effect” on your decisions, where you do a whole lot but don’t go anywhere. Just as a treadmill cancels out your movement and keeps you in place while you run, so self-licensing can cause you to cancel out your own positive health behaviors with negative ones, leaving you with little to show for your efforts.
Why Dietary Supplements Often Backfire
Perhaps the most well-documented example of self-licensing in health behaviors is the paradoxical effect that dietary supplement usage can have for many people.
A 2011 paper by Chiou et al found that dietary supplement usage caused people to engage in less exercise and dietary self-regulation. From the abstract: In two experiments, participants who took placebo pills that they believed were dietary supplements exhibited the licensing effect across multiple forms of health-related behavior: They expressed less desire to engage in exercise and more desire to engage in hedonic activities (Experiment 1), expressed greater preference for a buffet over an organic meal (Experiment 1), and walked less to benefit their health (Experiment 2) compared with participants who were told the pills were a placebo. A mediational analysis indicated that perceived invulnerability was an underlying mechanism for these effects.
Another 2011 study by Chiou et al (same lead researcher, but the rest of the team and the journal were different) found that smokers who took dietary supplements smoked more cigarettes. The study also found that the effect was greater the more effective subjects believed dietary supplements to be.
“Participants who believed that they were taking a dietary supplement smoked more cigarettes than did controls. Study 1 found support for the role of perceived invulnerability as a mechanism underlying this effect. Study 2 demonstrated the moderating effect played by attitudes towards dietary supplements: a more positive attitude towards supplements increased susceptibility to licensing effects.”
Note that this was before vaping became really popular. I suspect that vaping would be even more prone to this effect, as it’s easier to rationalize as a healthier alternative to smoking. I’d expect the same for wine-drinking, since wine is seen as the healthier alternative to beer and hard liquor. To be fair, both of these are true, but that’s not saying much.
So, how do you take dietary supplements without falling prey to self-licensing? First off, remember that they’re a very minor part of a healthy lifestyle– maybe 5% of what matters.
Second, stick to the big ones: vitamin D, creatine, and fish oil if you don’t eat a lot of fish.
Which leads me to the last piece of advice: reframe how you think of dietary supplements.
The big ones like vitamin D and creatine? They’re just the bare minimum. You get no credit for taking them.
Other supplements are situational, and instead of being seen as purely positive, you should understand that they’re often ways to paper over flaws in your diet and lifestyle.
Multivitamins are healthy as far as it goes, but they’re mainly a way to compensate for a lack of micronutrients in your diet– particularly fruits and vegetables.
B vitamins, and especially B12, are often recommended for people with malabsorption issues. Again, I don’t disagree, but those issues are often caused by anti-nutrients in your diet. If you haven’t gone on a low-FODMAP diet before you resort to them, the supplements are a crutch.
Stimulants, including more than a cup or two of coffee in the morning, are usually a way to overcome lack of motivation or poor sleep– and they actually exacerbate the very sleep issue they’re meant to treat!
Conversely, “relaxing” supplements like ashwagandha are often used to treat stimulant overuse or a high-stress lifestyle. If you use them, be honest about why you need them– maybe you drink too much caffeine, or are avoiding the real work of building a less stressful lifestyle. Maybe you should take up meditation.
Anabolic steroids? They help you build muscle, but I don’t think anyone would claim that they’re healthy, at least beyond TRT levels.
In short, stop thinking of supplements as a positive– they’re either an absolute minimum requirement, or a crutch that should highlight something else you need to be doing better.
The SnackWell Effect– Why People Overeat Low-Calorie Foods
Named after a now-defunct brand of low-fat packaged cookies, the SnackWell Effect is the purported phenomenon in which reducing the calorie count of a food causes people to simply eat more of that food.
Research on the SnackWell Effect is a bit mixed– studies generally find that most people don’t overeat low-calorie foods, but tend to engage in compensatory eating later on.
For instance, Rolls et al found that people given a low-calorie snack– 100-200 kcal lower than a control snack– didn’t tend to overeat at the time, nor at their next meal two hours later. However, they did engage in compensatory overeating over the longer run. It is however a little unclear how much of this is driven by self-licensing vs physiological factors, as the same thing occurred even when subjects were not informed about the calorie content of their food.
The solution to caloric over-compensation is to follow the crowding-out principle: concern yourself not merely with reducing calories, but with maximizing satiety per calorie.
Your best tool for doing this is the SELF nutrition database, which has listings for just about every food you can think of. Unless you’re bulking and have trouble eating enough– or eating a post-workout cheat meal– most of the foods you eat should be rated at least a 4 for fullness factor and 4 stars for weight loss.
Diet vs Exercise
Good health and fitness requires some degree of both dietary control and exercise. However, self-licensing can create a dynamic in which these two cancel each other out: good diet leads to lack of exercise, or a good workout becomes an excuse for a cheat meal.
A 2018 study by West et al found that most people do use exercise as an excuse eat cheat foods, and the degree to which they do this varies substantially between individuals. A 2016 paper by Prinsen et al, covering a series of three studies, found that people are more prone to justify repeated dietary cheating when the first instance of cheating was given a self-license justification.
There is less evidence that people use self-licensing to justify skipping workouts. One study of state fair attendees by Lenne et al found that most people favor dietary rather than exercise self-licensing. The study also found that people who pre-compensate– that is, eat less before the state fair in anticipation eating eating junk food– were more likely to also post– compensate, i.e. to eat less after the fair. They were also no more likely than others to overeat at the state fair. This suggests that dietary pre-compensation can be a healthy strategy.
Anecdotally, people who are into fitness often post-compensate by exercising more after an unplanned cheat meal. This is somewhat effective, but remember that a) it takes a lot of exercise to work off the calories from a large meal, and b) this only addresses the excess calorie intake, and not the lower quality of the meal in terms of micronutrients and anti-nutrients. It’s better than nothing, but far from ideal.
Let’s address the less common issue of exercise self-licensing first. The cure for this is simply to have a clearly defined exercise schedule– including both when you exercise and what you do during your workouts– and stick to it, independently of your diet. Any decent program will have you doing that anyway, and in general workouts tend to be more planned and less subject to spur of the moment decision-making then meals.
As for dietary self-licensing, there’s good news here: it’s not always bad. People often use cheat meals as a reward for workouts, and that can actually be helpful up to a point. You should eat more in the 12-24 hours after a workout (Menno discusses into calorie cycling in his Bayesian PT course), and post-workout cheat meals can help motivate you to work out.
That said, it’s very easy to overdo this, so a few ground rules are in order.
First, you only get a post-workout cheat meal after a resistance training workout, not a cardio workout.
Second, there needs to be a minimum training volume to qualify. A good starting point is 20 sets for novices, 25 for intermediate trainees, and 30 sets for advanced trainees.
Third, you may need to limit how often you do this depending on body fat. Limit it to twice a week if you’re overweight– over 15% body fat for men or 25% for women. Limit it to four times a week if you’re at a healthy weight– 12-20% body fat for men, 18-25% body fat for women. If you’re leaner than that, once a day is fine.
Fourth, the size and content of the meal needs to be limited. If you’re counting calories, incorporate planned cheat meals into your calorie targets.
If you’re following an ad-libitum diet, post-workout cheat meals should consist of a healthy protein source, some fat, and a reasonably healthy carbohydrate, but they can omit the usual allotment of fruits and vegetables. For instance, Menno and I both favor sushi. While sushi has a reputation as a healthy food, the lack of fruits and vegetables means it’s not something you’d want to eat for every meal. Still, it’s a great deal better than pizza and cake.
Finally, regardless of food quality or calorie targets, stop eating when you feel full, at the latest. This is as opposed to eating until you feel stuffed– which you should never do– or stopping as soon as you’re not hungry, which should be your default for all other meals.
Diet-Tracking Apps vs Exercise-Tracking Apps
In theory diet-tracking apps and exercise-tracking apps should be effective, and should both be similarly effective, since they both work the same way. In practice, both can be subject to self-licensing.
The evidence for the efficacy of mobile apps in promoting fitness is mixed even when multiple studies are combined. A meta-analysis by Islam et al found statistically significant but minor benefits, amounting to 1.07 kg of weight loss on average. Take that number with a grain of salt, since the included studies used different apps and methodologies and had different lengths.
A narrative review by Ghelani et al concluded that fitness apps may be a useful adjunct to traditional fitness interventions, but that there is insufficient evidence to recommend them as a standalone intervention.
One possible explanation is that the very awareness promoted by mobile apps may trigger self-licensing. This effect is likely to be asymmetrical. On some level, people tend to categorize exercise as good since it burns calories, and eating as bad since it adds calories, so exercise is likely to promote negative self-licensing, while eating is more likely, if anything, to promote positive self-licensing.
This is especially likely given the aforementioned study by Lenne et al, which found that people are more prone to modify their eating than their exercise behavior when self-licensing is triggered. Note also that while “exercise is good” is mostly correct, :eating is bad” is not. You need to eat, and eating healthy, low-calorie food shouldn’t be seen as bad just because it has calories.
In any case, the utility of using apps to track calories is highly questionable. Banerjee et al found that most apps don’t estimate calories very accurately, and that’s especially true for food-tracking apps which use a user-generated database, like MyFitnessPal, rather than one put together by professionals. The same study found that apps produced no significant changes in caloric intake, but did lead to a sizable (13%) trend in increasing calories burned through exercise.
Additionally, Solbrig et al found that users generally dislike calorie-tracking apps, partly due to the amount of time that has to be spent on them. Given the inaccuracy of calorie-tracking apps, we have two good reasons not to use them.
That said, you should track your meals and workouts– just maybe not precise calorie counts. Track what you eat and when, and which exercises you do at what weight and how many sets. Leaving out calories will reduce the likelihood of triggering self-licensing, especially when combined with the advice I gave in the last section.
Final Thoughts On Countering– Or Using– Self-Licensing
It’s easy to get defeatist about self-licensing, and it’s important to keep this phenomenon in perspective. It’s not guaranteed to happen, there are ways of dealing with it, and sometimes it can even be a positive.
I’ve mentioned how the self-licensing tendency to give yourself a cheat meal after a workout can be used constructively. Something similar could be said for the example I gave at the start where you let yourself splurge on a big expense after saving money– that is how budgeting works, after all, and one could imagine a more constructive expense than buying yourself a new TV– new exercise equipment, or a laptop that helps you work more productively, perhaps.
Self-licensing can also work in reverse– awareness of your own shortcomings can motivate you to better behavior. Building awareness of your own missteps can thus be used as a way to motivate better behavior.
This begs the question of whether avoiding self-licensing requires avoiding positivity. I would say no– there are different kinds of positivity.
There’s positivity about your current or past behavior– “I’m already doing well.” This does, unfortunately, need to be kept to a minimum.
On the other hand, optimism and confidence about the future are entirely compatible with a healthy strategy for handling self-licensing. Think “This is a good start, and I know I can continue to build on it.” This is upbeat in a way that encourages even better behavior in the future, and both more pleasant and more effective than the all-to-common self-talk that goes “I’m such a fuck-up, I need to stop doing this.”
Self-licensing doesn’t always happen, and its prevalence varies both between individuals, and between different types of decisions. Studies tend to gloss over or entirely elide inter-individual variation by reporting only average results, but if you look at the raw data, people are not all the same. This tends to be more true for psychological phenomena like self-licensing than for physical phenomena like response to exercise, as they are less mechanistic in their effects and highly mediated by personal attitudes.
In fact, some research suggests that the self-licensing effect is overstated by publication bias, and also that its strength is highly dependent on cultural attitudes. The first may be true; the second is very likely true.
There are cases where self-licensing seems like it would happen, but studies don’t find it. When I first planned this article, I expected that ethical food consumption would produce a self-licensing effect whereby people would eat less healthy food. The opposite seems to occur, at least in French adults– ethical food choices also lead to healthier food choices. Whether this goes for other cultures I don’t know, but remember that your attitude is a choice– you can always adopt one that isn’t typical of your culture.
Finally– and this last part is only my own speculation– self-licensing is very likely counterbalanced by the more well-known phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, wherein people adjust their beliefs or self-image to match their actions. For example, people who smoke adjust their attitude towards smoking to be more positive, and people who eat meat adopt negative attitudes towards animal rights.
Like self-licensing, cognitive dissonance is almost always conceived of as a negative phenomenon, but it doesn’t have to be; it works both ways. You can use it to entrench positive behavior by incorporating it into your self-image, just as you can use self-licensing to motivate yourself to compensate for negative behaviors.
You work out and eat a health meal? Tell yourself that that says a lot about you– you’re a healthy person!
You skipped your workout and ate pizza? Focus on the behavior– that was bad, but you’ll make up for it by doing a longer workout ASAP and eating 100% clean for a few days.
The idea of deliberately embracing seemingly-irrational phenomena like cognitive dissonance may seem silly. To that I say, if you can get yourself to engage in positive health behaviors for supposedly irrational reasons, just take the win.
And this brings us back to positivity. Focusing purely on the behavior when you do something wrong, and making it about who you are when you do something right feels good, but it also happens to be productive. Over time the balance of your behaviors will shift towards the positive, and you’ll have a better self-image. And, objectively speaking, that positive self-image will be accurate– you’ll have earned it.
John Fawkes is an evidence-based online trainer who writes about fitness, psychology and scientific research. Some of his greatest hits include his articles on the possible dangers of glyphosate, the effects of testosterone in investment behavior and market risk, how ti improve your workouts with flexible exercise selection, why learning styles are a myth, and his review of the research on how to stick to a fitness program.
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