Willpower Project 4 of 11: Moral Licensing

This is part four of my series on Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct. If you’re interested in starting from the beginning, head back to part one.

Last Week:
The previous chapter was all about fatigue and for a reason that I can’t quite determine, it feels like a complete blur. The experiments for the week were to eat in ways that moderate blood sugar levels (low glycemic), to monitor the ups and downs of willpower, and to set a specific willpower challenge. I was consistent on the first two experiments, but the willpower challenge was a pretty big flop.

My regular diet is something of a paleo approximation. I generally don’t eat grains, beans, or dairy, but I’m not 100% rigid. I’ll eat rice about once per week, and I’ll eat some dessert and have a drink or two every so often. In general, however, my diet is full of meat and vegetables and it’s a diet that is effective as moderating blood sugar levels. Because of this I did not make any significant changes to my diet. Despite the lack of significant change, I was able to observe that when I got particularly hungry my willpower was noticeably lower. In particular, I found myself driving to lunch after a long morning, and it was extremely difficult to contain my frustration with other drivers or red lights, when I am typically pretty calm. My day hadn’t been particularly difficult up to that point so it stands to reason that the lower willpower was linked to a lack of food and dropping blood sugar. I also noticed that when I make a choice to indulge in food it easily snowballs into many indulgences, but I think this is more of an example of the “What the Hell Effect” Coming in Chapter 6.

When it came to monitoring my willpower levels throughout the week I chose an ad hoc approach as opposed to writing down every willpower swing up or down. The first thing I noticed is that on mornings when I meditated to start my day I had a substantial increase in willpower throughout the morning. This made the whole day easier as I didn’t have to fight all morning, and it left me with a greater reserve of willpower right before lunch and into the afternoon, when my willpower was typically at its lowest. Additionally I found an enormous boost to my willpower in the hours directly after exercise, as long as the workout did not completely exhaust me. Throughout the week I had strong training workouts, and came home feeling refreshed, whereas on Saturday I competed in Crossfit Open workout 14.3 and I was well and truly fatigued for the remainder of the day.

In addition to specific times of day, or after certain activities, I noticed that physical location, and the presence of others impacted my willpower and my ability to make choices aligned with my long-term goals. Calm public places, coffee shops for instance, gave me a boost to my willpower, while being at home made me more inclined to act impulsively. I hypothesize that this is due to an increased presence of temptation at home. The presence of a television is particularly distracting to me, and it’s even hard for me to carry a one on one conversation when a TV is playing at a restaurant. The presence of others that are actively engaged in similar activities definitely helped my willpower as I am able to feed off their positive energy. During the open workout the presence of many other people helped me complete substantially more lifts than if I had completed the workout on my own. Additionally the presence of other people in the act of writing encourages me to stay focused on my own writing. When others are engaged in impulsive behavior I feel their actions pull at my willpower and each second of focused work in their presence becomes a willpower challenge.

My willpower challenge to maintain improved spine position while sitting was a complete flop. There were so many other things that were on my mind that I just didn’t keep track of my posture. Every now and then I caught myself, but I was much more mindful of monitoring my willpower levels throughout the day and this fell to the side.

Chapter 4: License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad

In this chapter McGonigal introduces the reader to the concept of moral licensing. In short this is when people use their good behavior in order to grant themselves permission for bad behavior. The entire chapter made me think about papal indulgences, when one could buy forgiveness for sins from the church, even before sinning. It’s probably the history nerd in me, but I was shocked that McGonigal did not make the connection explicit.

The entire issue of moral licensing hinges on the idea that our willpower decisions are moral decisions. This immediately connected with me and I saw myself in many of the examples. The concept is also predicated on the idea that we see ourselves as somehow flawed in our impulsive state and that we want to be “good enough” as opposed to morally impeccable. Essentially, by using self-control (good) I get the reward of returning to my natural, impulsive state (bad). The concept plays out as follows: My long term goal is to be more healthy, therefore I engage my willpower and hit the gym. (I don’t want to do this, but it’s good for me, so this self-control makes me a good person. I earn some good points.) Because I earned enough good points, I can now spend them on something indulgent. This could be linked to my challenge (I get to eat some junk food), but does not need to be (I buy myself a present). The most classic example that by forcing myself to eat my vegetables I earn the right to indulge in dessert. I trade a good action for a bad action.

There are many problems with this, as McGonigal illustrates extensively throughout the chapter, but the one that really hit home for me was the distinction that these choices are made using emotion as a way of knowing, as opposed to reason. The distinction does not reduce the validity of the decision (she does not dismiss emotion,) but it properly situates the decision as an emotional, or impulsive decision that occurs in the midbrain, as opposed to a willpower based decision that takes place in the prefrontal cortex. Choices made through moral licensing act against our long-term goals and actively hinder us from becoming the self we want to be. These choices act most directly against our “I want” power. Knowledge of this distinction allows use to take control and the easiest way to take control is to revoke our moral license.

The most effective way to revoke one’s moral license is not to engage in guilt or shaming for impulsive decisions, but to simply remove the morality of willpower choices. My choice to eat or not eat a sugary treat does not make me a good or bad person. It is simply a conflict of willpower and impulse, of short-term and long-term priorities. When we remove the morality we do not gain virtue by making choices that align with our long-term goals, and therefore we’ve earned no indulgences. (I am also predicting that McGonigal will use moral licensing later on in the book as leverage for self-compassion.) Our emotions are activated as a way of knowing because we assign a value to our actions. Revoking the moral license and making my choices devoid of any sense of moral worth is the first experiment for the week.

The second experiment is to view actions as habitual, or leading to habit. In other words, to reduce the variability of each day. The rationale behind this is that if we see our actions as something that we engage in every day we are more likely to make choices that align with our long-term goals. If the choice is between saving money every day, or buying a pair of shoes every day, I am much more likely to save my money than if I can self-justify that I’ll buy the shoes “just this one time.” By viewing our choices as commitment to choosing that action habitually we remove the “cognitive crutch that tomorrow will be different.” This second experiment has made an immediate impact on me. Even on the first day, when choosing to pack or buy a lunch, I thought that I would rather be a person who brings a lunch each day, than a person who buys a lunch each day, and as such I made the choice to bring some unappealing (yet perfectly edible) leftovers because the choice aligns more closely with my long-term health goals.

With these experiments in mind, I am choosing to write because I want to be the kind of person who writes habitually. This is aligned to my long-term goals. At the same time, however, I gain no moral currency by do the writing, therefore I have no license to choose actions that work against my long-term goals.

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1 comment
  1. Andy McCormick said:

    This discussion reminds me of another spiritual myth, i.e., that a savior will come to get us out of the jam we’re in, whatever that might be. The wish or hope for a savior has the power to remove personal responsibility for our lives from us. Waiting for a savior can keep us from taking our lives in our hands and making the choices we need to make to have the life we want. By reflecting on our long term goals as the author suggests, we focus our intention in a way that pulls us into action toward that goal and it requires us to commit to working toward that goal without waiting for anyone else to move us in that direction. I like that we don’t blame ourselves for “falling off the wagon,” nor grant ourselves times to regress when we’ve done well. It’s all about being who we really are and living our life that way. Thanks for the discussion.

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