Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Self-licensing: when you indulge through reason, not lack of willpower

We usually think of over-indulgence in terms of a lack of willpower. I scoff the doughnut because I can't marshal the necessary self-control to resist it. A great deal of psychology research has pursued this particular line, demonstrating, for example, that willpower seems to be a finite resource. Expend it in one situation and you'll have less left over for another.

A new study by Jessie de Witt Huberts and her colleagues at Utrecht University takes a different perspective. They point out that we often over-indulge, not because we can't help it, but because we reason that it's okay to do so. After that half-hour run, we tell ourselves, we deserve the doughnut! de Witt Huberts' team call this self-licensing and they say it's surprisingly under-researched.

Previous studies have shown how self-licensing affects our choices. For example, after working harder, people are more likely to choose a cake over a fruit-salad. But before now, no-one's looked to see how self-licensing might affect actual indulgent consumption.

Before they got started, de Witt Huberts and her team had to confront a complication with researching this topic - the need to separate out the effects of low energy from self-licensing. If someone's been working hard, not only might this encourage them to think they deserve a naughty snack, their lack of energy might also deplete their willpower (indeed, studies have suggested that low sugar levels reduce willpower).

To get around this problem, de Witt Huberts and her colleagues needed a way to trick people into thinking they'd worked hard (inviting self licensing) without actually diminishing their willpower levels. They did this by having participants test-out what they were told was a new screening tool for dyslexia. It involved looking at 200 words on a computer screen, one at a time, and pressing the key on the keyboard that corresponded to the first letter of each word. Crucially, one group of participants did this for five minutes, and were then told they had to do it all over again for another five minutes to check the reliability of the screening tool. The other participants simply had a one-minute break between two 5-minute sessions.

In a pilot study with 106 women, the group who thought they'd had to test the screening tool twice, felt like they'd worked harder than the other group, who thought they'd done it just once (even though both groups had worked for the same length of time). Next, both groups completed the Stroop test, a classic measure of self control that requires people to read colour words (e.g. blue), whilst ignoring the ink colour they're written in. This test confirmed that both groups had the same levels of self control even though one group felt like they'd worked harder than the other.

When it came to the study proper, 39 women were split into two groups - one did the dyslexia screening tool in two phases, to make them feel like they'd worked harder, and the other group did it in one bash. Next, ostensibly as part of a separate consumer research study, all the women taste-tested some crisps, M&Ms, Wine gums and Chocolate chip cookies.

The take-home finding? Both groups said their willpower levels felt the same, but the women who thought they'd worked harder tended to eat more of the naughty food. In the ten minutes available, they consumed an average of 26 grammes of more snack-food, which equated to 130 more calories. As well as feeling like they'd worked harder, they also said they felt more hungry, but this wasn't correlated with the amount they ate. The researchers speculated that the feelings of hunger could have been a further form of self-licensing - "I've worked hard and I'm hungry".

This study is one of the first steps towards uncovering the part that self-licensing plays in giving in to temptation. It's limited in that the sample only included women and the self-licensing was implicit. The women who thought they'd worked harder were more indulgent, but we don't know anything about the way they reasoned with themselves, or if the effect was conscious at all. "Nevertheless," the researchers concluded, "although many questions about self-licensing require further investigation, the current studies demonstrate that sometimes people strategically choose to indulge and that gratification of our desires is not inevitably governed by our impulses."

ESSIE C. DE WITT HUBERTS, CATHARINE EVERS, and DENISE T. D. DE RIDDER (2012). License to sin: Self-licensing as a mechanism underlying hedonic consumption. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.861

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


David Ballenger said...

Could it not be that 'self-licensing' is merely the means that the subconscious lack of self control uses to justify the self-gratification behavior? Telling oneself that it's okay to have something you've earlier decided you shan't (such as a reformed cigarette smoker creating a justification for a cigarette after a hard day) sounds like a lack of will-power to me.....

Christian Jarrett said...

hi David, the two factors are bound to be closely related, but these researchers are trying to show that self-licensing can lead to more indulgence, even when self-control isn't diminished. If both groups of women had the same levels of self-control, how come one group consumed more than the other? It looks likely it's because they believed they'd worked harder ... and presumably that led them to license themselves to eat more.

monkeyread_monkeydo said...

I agree with David. Self-licensing sounds like a case of post-rationalisation for behaviour.

Surely this is also a justificable explanation for results:

1. the 2 task group DID have to muster more willpower. Why? the experimental condition was to make them believe their task was harder: self-control is also governed by motivation, less motivated to do a task due to the belief it is against your wishes= greater ego depletion.
- The desire to eat more food in 2 task group is then due to glucose level depletion. Brain is instructed to eat more food to compensate for low glucose. But this instruction is at an unconscious level. The conscious mind then has to make up a reason for why the behaviour occurred. The psychologically healthy rationalisation to be you cheery about yourself: you deserve it man= self-licensing.

Going forward it would be interesting to see a replication of this experiment where blood glucose measures were taken before and after the two conditions to separate the two versions. No difference in blood glucose change between groups supports self-licensing, a difference supports willpower.

Christian Jarrett said...

hi monkey - you say the 2 task group task DID have to muster more willpower but in the pilot study, the 2 task group did just as well on the stroop test. That's the main point the researchers are making - the 2-task group felt like they'd worked harder but they hadn't really and their self-control (as measured by stroop) was just as strong. That suggests they ate more because they felt like they'd earned it, not because their control was more depleted

Dalleism said...

Perhaps self-licensing is a response to finite willpower. If we are made to believe we've used up a lot of our will power, we strategically indulge to maintain reserves. I know I do that all the time. I'm very self-concious about my lack of discipline.

David said...

Another interesting find, Christian, on a fascinating research topic. I'm a little surprised that more research hasn't been done, because de Witt Huberts' suggestion about self-licensing does intuitively ring true for me.

I disagree with the other David (above) that it's just semantics. I personally know that there are times when I do things out of a lack of will power and other times because I reason that I have "deserved" it (predominantly in the case of eating chocolate!). The problem, of course, (especially with over eating) is we self-reason poorly!

I would like to see more research on self-licensing. Let me know if you hear of other studies.


elsao said...

I do think this is really interesting and totally worth further study. However, I wonder if the group that were told they had to do it over, ate more because they were stressed and frustrated. And in that sense they actually HAD worked harder than the control group, because they used more resources dealing with the frustration. Emotional factors have an effect on the body, I'm thinking, and may once again, affect will power.

Still, coming at this issue from a different angle may be very useful.

Catherine said...

I agree with Elsao. In this particular case I'm not convinced the evidence is there for implicit self-licensing. It seems more likely to me that because the group believed they had worked harder, their willpower was more depleted. Having said that I also agree with the second David that self-licensing does happen. This makes interesting research from the perspective of highlighting the subject, provoking discussion and, hopefully, stimulating further research.

John said...

Wow, human psychology is so interesting.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

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