“Hitler was a vegetarian. Just goes to show, vegetarianism, not always a good thing. Can, in some extreme cases, lead to genocide.” – Bill Bailey
There’s a burgeoning new field of research in psychology known as health licensing*. Health licensing is the idea that once people do something health-promoting, they subsequently give themselves psychological license to do other, unhealthy things. A classic example of this kind of research might go something like this: an experimenter will give participants a chance to do something healthy, like go on a jog or eat a nutritious lunch. After participants engage in this healthy behavior, they are then given a chance to do something unhealthy, like break their own legs. Typical results show that once people have engaged in these otherwise healthy behaviors, they are significantly more likely to engage in self-destructive ones, like leg-breaking, in order to achieve a balance between their healthy and unhealthy behaviors. This is just one more cognitive quirk to add to the ever-lengthening list of human psychological foibles.
Now that you engaged in hospital-visiting behavior, feel free to burn yourself to even it out.
Now many of you are probably thinking one or both of two things: “that sounds strange” and “that’s not true”. If you are thinking those things, I’m happy that we’re on the same page so far. The problems with the above hypothetical area of research are clear. First, it seems strange that people would go do something unhealthy and harmful because they had previously done something which was good for them; it’s not like healthy and unhealthy behaviors need to be intrinsically balanced out for any reason, at least not one that readily comes to mind. Second, it seems strange that people would want to engage in the harmful behaviors at all. Just because an option to do something unhealthy is presented, it doesn’t mean people are going to want to take it, as it might have little appeal to them. When people typically engage in behaviors which are deemed harmful in the long-term – such as smoking, overeating junk food, or other such acts which are said to be psychologically ‘licensed’ by healthy behaviors – they do so because of the perceived short-term benefits of such things. People certainly don’t drink for the hangover; they drink for the pleasant feelings induced by the booze.
So, with that in mind, what are we to make of a study that suggests doing something healthy can give people a psychological license to adopt immoral political stances? In case that sounds too abstract, the research on the table today examines whether drinking sauerkraut juice make people more likely to endorse Nazi-like politics, and no; I’m not kidding (as much as I wish I was). The paper (Messner & Brugger, 2015) itself leans heavily on moral licensing: the idea that engaging in moral behaviors activates compensating psychological mechanisms that encourage the actor to engage in immoral ones. So, if you told the truth today, you get to lie tomorrow to balance things out. Before moving further into the details of the paper, it’s worth mentioning that the authors have already bumped up against one of the problems from my initial example: I cannot think of a reason that ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ behaviors need to be “balanced out” psychologically (whatever that even means), and none is provided. Indeed, as some people continuously refrain from immoral (or unhealthy) behaviors, whereas others continuously indulge in them, compensation or balance doesn’t seem to factor into the equation in the same way (or at all) for everyone.
Messner & Brugger (2015) try to draw on a banking analogy, whereby moral behavior gives one “credit” into their account that can be “spent” on immoral behavior. However, this analogy is largely unhelpful as you cannot spend money you do not have, but you can engage in immoral behaviors even if you have no morally-good “credit”. It’s also unhelpful in that it presumes immoral behavior is something one wants to spend their moral credit on; the type of immoral behavior seems to be besides the point, as we will soon see. Much like my leg-breaking example, this too seems to make little sense: people don’t seem to want to engage in immoral behavior because it is immoral. As the bank account analogy is not at all helpful for understanding the phenomenon in question, it seems better to drop it altogether, since it’s only likely to sow confusion in the minds of anyone trying to really figure out what’s going on here. Then again, perhaps the confusion is only present in the paper to compensate for all the useful understanding the researchers are going to provide us later.
Moving forward, the authors argue that, because health-relevant behavior is moralized, engaging in some kind of health-promoting behavior – in this case, drinking sauerkraut juice (high in fiber and vitamin C, we are told) – ought to give people good moral “credit” which they will subsequently spend on immoral behavior (in much the same way buying eco-friendly products leads to people giving themselves a moral license to steal, we are also told). Accordingly, the authors first asked 128 Swiss students to indicate who was more moral: someone who drinks sauerkraut juice or someone who drinks Nestea. As predicted, 78% agreed that the sauerkraut-juice drinker was more moral, though whether a “neither, and this question is silly” option existed is not mentioned. The students also indicated how morally acceptable and right wing a number of attitudes were; statements which related to, according to the authors, a number of nasty topics like devaluing the culture of others (i.e., seeing a woman wearing a burka making someone uncomfortable), devaluing other nations (viewing foreign nationals as a burden on the state), affirming antisemitism (disliking some aspects of Israeli politics), devaluing the humanity of others (not agreeing that all public buildings ought to be modified for handicapped access), and a few others. Now all of these statements were rated as immoral by the students, but whether they represent what the authors think they do (Nazi-like politics) is up for interpretation.
In any case, another 111 participants were then collected and assigned to drink sauerkraut juice, Nestea, or nothing. Those who drank the sauerkraut juice rated it as healthier than those who drank the Nestea and, correspondingly, were also more likely to endorse the Nazi-like statements (M = 4.46 on a 10-point scale) than those who drank Nestea (M = 3.82) or nothing (M = 3.73). Neat. There are, however, a few other major issues to address. The first of these is that, depending on who you sample, you’re going to get different answers to the “are these attitudes morally acceptable?” questions. Since it’s Swiss students being assessed in both cases, I’ll let that issue slide for the more pressing, theoretical one: the author’s interpretation of the results would imply that the students who indicated that such attitudes are immoral also wished to express them. That is to say, because they just did something healthy (drank sauerkraut juice) they now want to engage in immoral behavior. They don’t seem to picky about what immoral behavior they engage in either, as they’re apparently more willing to adopt political stances they would otherwise oppose, were it not for the disgusting, yet healthy, sauerkraut juice.
This strikes me very much as the kind of metaphorical leg-breaking I mentioned earlier. When people engage in immoral (or unhealthy) behaviors, they typically do so because of some associated benefit: stealing grants you access to resources you otherwise wouldn’t obtain; eating that Twinkie gives you the pleasant taste and the quick burst of calories, even if they make you fat when you do that too much. What benefits are being obtained by the Swiss students who are now (slightly) more likely to endorse right-wing, Nazi-like politics? None are made clear in the paper and I’m having a hard time thinking up any myself. This seems to be a case of immoral behavior for the sake of it, which could only arise from a rather strange psychology. Perhaps there is something worth noting going on here that isn’t being highlighted well; perhaps the authors just stumbled on a statistical fluke (which does happen regularly). In either case, the idea of moral licensing doesn’t seem to help us understand what’s happening at all, and the banking metaphors and references to “balancing” and “compensation” seem similarly impotent to move us forward.
“Just give him the money; he eats well, so it’s OK”
The moral licensing idea is even worse than all that, though, as it doesn’t engage with the main adaptive reason people avoid self-beneficial, but immoral behaviors: other people will punish you for them. If I steal from someone else, they or their allies might well take revenge on me; that I assure them of my healthy diet will likely create little to no effective deterrence against the punishment I would soon receive. If that is the case – and I suspect it is – then this self-granted “moral license” would be about as useful as my simply believing that stealing from others isn’t wrong and won’t be punished (which is to say, “not at all”). Any type of moral license needs to be granted by potential condemners in order to be of any practical use in that regard, and the current research does not assess whether that is the case. This limited focus on conscience – rather than condemnation – complete with the suggestion that people are likely to adopt social politics they would otherwise oppose for the sake of achieving some kind of moral balance after drinking 100 ml of gross sauerkraut juice makes for a very strange paper indeed.
References: Messner, C. & Brugger, A. (2015). Nazis by Kraut: A playful application of moral self-licensing. Psychology, 6, http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2015.69112
*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA or any such governmental body; the field doesn’t actually exist to the best of my knowledge, but I’ll tell you it does anyway.