Moral Leadership: Moral Licensing

I dropped off the kids this morning at a summer day-camp. My wife asked if I could do this because my schedule is flexible this week, and she has a plethora of work to complete. I have to confess selfishness bubbled up in me when the request came. “I have things I want to do. An hour hauling kids around will eat into my time.” I moved past my own desires, recognized the greater good, and took the kids. After my “good deed,” another thought struck me. “I’ve done good. Well done you amazing husband and father.” Then a third idea emerged, “I want to do something for me now. I’ve taken care of my family, so I deserve time with the guys.”

Can you see the pattern of thinking?

  1. I do something good.
  2. I feel a boost in my self-concept.
  3. I feel validated to do something selfish.

The same flow of thinking and behaviors show up in eating.

  1. I eat a salad for lunch. This is something good for me.
  2. I feel a boost in my self-image because I ate healthy food.
  3. I drink a large milkshake.

Social scientists call this behavior moral self-licensing. Anna Merritt and colleagues write:

“Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.”

Spending time with my friends instead of my family or eating a milkshake isn’t necessarily immoral. The problem is the wrong motivation that drives the behavior and the unhealthy patterns that can emerge. Here is another example.

  • You give a customer a good deal on a product.
  • You feel you’re a fair salesperson.
  • You then sell a product to a customer that you know they don’t need.

As we strive to lead ourselves and the people around us, let’s be aware of moral self-licensing and change the pattern.