Behavioral Licensing

Even though sales of vitamins have risen steadily, there has been no corresponding improvement in public health. Indeed, the opposite is true, with obesity and diabetes climbing perilously. What’s going on here?

A team of psychological scientists in Taiwan, led by Wen-Bin Chiou of National Sun Yat-Sen University, has been exploring this paradox from the perspective of behavioral “licensing.” Licensing is the notion that when we do something that we believe is good for us—like popping a vitamin—this action ironically gives us permission to engage in subsequent bad behavior—like munching potato chips—adding up to a net loss. We make these perverse tradeoffs because doing something positive bolsters our “health credentials,” which boosts our sense of invulnerability, which in turn encourages self-indulgence.

This is troubling. Earlier studies have shown that people can get a sense of moral license from actual exercise, leading them to eat more—and less healthy foods—afterward. But exercise has known health benefits, so it’s at least an honest tradeoff. Vitamins may or may not enhance health—the jury’s really still out on that—so it’s a cheap and easy way to acquire moral license without any certain benefit. The sense of invulnerability is illusory, yet it feeds a feeling of entitlement to rewards—and not just dietary rewards. It appears that people have a very general concept of their health and well-being, so that a simple vitamin can license misbehavior totally unrelated to nutrition—casual sex and sunbathing and boozing. It’s a license for a risky lifestyle, all in a single capsule.

Wray Herbert is the author of, On Second Thought:Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits .