Moral Licensing - Why Feeling "Good" Justifies Doing "Bad"

How can this be?

The researchers thought. They were testing to see whether people who were half way to completing their overall goal would be more likely to finish it if they were focused on how far they had come, or how far they still had to go.

The researchers believed they had a sure winner in the group that focused on their progress. After all, wouldn’t feeling good about how far you have come make you that much more committed to seeing the goal through to the finish?

Apparently not.

The participants who focused on their progress not only did worse than the participants who focused on how far they still needed to go, they also did worse than the control group who didn’t focus on either! [1

Why is this? Shouldn’t feeling good about your progress give you the confidence that you need to make it to the finish?


When the participants celebrated their progress, they began to feel virtuous. They looked at everything they were able to accomplish and were proud of how far they had come.  

Unfortunately, it was this “virtuous” feeling that doomed them from actually reaching their goal.

As soon as they started to view their progress to that point as “good”, they began to justify to themselves the ability to do “bad”. 

“After all, I’ve been so good lately! Don’t I deserve to indulge just a little bit?”

This perspective led the participants down the wrong path. After they began using their good behavior to justify bad behavior once, they began using it to justify even more bad behavior! Which eventually ruined all of their progress.

This is a phenomenon known as moral licensing. And it has the ability to make you give up on your goals – and feel good about doing it. [2]


There is an internal battle constantly going on inside of your brain.

It is being fought between your limbic system – which is concerned with your short-term desires like eating delicious food, making impulse purchases and relaxing – and your pre-frontal cortex – which is concerned with your higher aspirations.

Every time you come across temptation, this internal debate gets cued up. The limbic system sees the temptation and immediately tells you, “YESSSSS! Get it! Now!!”

But then your logical, rational, pre-frontal cortex comes in to calm things down and control your emotions. It will then use logic to debate the limbic system and say, “But if I give in, then I won’t reach my goal!”  

Under normal circumstances, if the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t win, it at least puts up a good fight. 

But what if your pre-frontal cortex starts believing that giving in to temptation won’t conflict with reaching your goal? What if you start to use logic and rationality to actually justify indulging

This is exactly what takes place with moral licensing.

Now your pre-frontal cortex is looking at all of your “good” behavior and using it as logical, rational reasons for you to justify skipping the trip to the gym, eating the dessert and procrastinating your work.

So rather than an epic battle between your long-term goals and your short-term desires, you have the two sides agreeing with each other – leading you to stray from your goals and feel justified in doing so!


It gets worse. Moral licensing does not even require that there is a connection between the good and bad behavior!

People who put extra time in at the office will use that as justification for indulging in food. 

People who stick to their diets will use that to justify a major credit card purchase. 

In one study, all it took was getting people to think about a charity they might donate to one day for them to increase their chances of splurging at the mall! [3]  

They didn't even have to volunteer or donate!

We don’t need to see a connection (or even do the good act!) we just need to feel good.


So how can you avoid this trap?

Well, the main problem with moral licensing comes when you start to credit activities like going to the gym, eating healthy, saving money, etc. with a moral virtue that they do not deserve.  

There is nothing moral about going to the gym, plenty of immoral people do! The same can be said for having no credit card debt or choosing a side salad instead of french fries.

When we claim these acts as virtuous, we fall into the trap of justifying “bad” behavior in other aspects of our lives. 

This doesn’t mean that you can’t feel good about making progress towards your goal. After all, small wins are important and necessary steps along the path to achieving anything worthwhile. 

However, never mistake progress towards a goal for the actual goal itself. 

A step in the right direction does not account for the entire journey. Instead, see your progress as a sign of your commitment to your goal.

Instead of saying “I’ve been good today, I went to the gym” say “I went to the gym because I’m committed to being healthy.” 

It sounds simple, but researchers have found that dieters who celebrate their commitment – rather than their progress – are far more likely to not only reach their goal, but stick to it after a 9-month follow-up! [1

When you celebrate your commitment, you understand that the work you did today is simply a sign of the healthier, fitter, happier person you are becoming. One who is on a journey, not one who has already reached their destination.

So celebrate the progress that you made today, but do not forget that it was simply a small win on the journey to reaching your goal. Not a “virtuous” act that justifies straying off your path.


One of the biggest mistakes you can make on the journey to reaching your goals is calling yourself “good”. Unfortunately, feeling virtuous for the progress you make can give you license to give in to temptations and derail your best laid plans. 

Instead of celebrating your progress, celebrate your commitment! In the end, your commitment to seeing out your long-term goals is going to be the thing that takes you from where you are, to where you truly want to be.


  1. Fishbach, A. & Dhar, R. (2005) Goals as Excuses or Guides: The Liberating Effect of Perceived Goal Progress on Choice. Journal of Consumer Research 32.3: 370-77.
  2. Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R. & Medin, D. (2009) Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation. Psychological Science 20.4: 523-28
  3. Merritt, A., Effron, D. & Monin, B. (2010) Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4.5: 344-57.