The Blog

The Licencing Effect - When Good Intentions Bring Bad Health

The licencing effect is assumed to permeate all aspects of our life; that in essence we are innately, though unwittingly, 'programmed' to balance our virtuous deeds, and it got me wondering about how it influences our healthy choice habits.

This week, I was intrigued to discover how a sizable chunk of retailers' profits during the holiday periods are attributable to what is known as the 'licencing effect'. Basically, it hypothesises that we as humans always strive to maintain the status quo in everything we do. So, when we go out and unselfishly buy others presents, we subconsciously feel entitled to do something selfish i.e. buy ourselves a present also.

The licencing effect is assumed to permeate all aspects of our life; that in essence we are innately, though unwittingly, 'programmed' to balance our virtuous deeds, and it got me wondering about how it influences our healthy choice habits.

The research has been conducted. Dieters are more likely to 'cheat' if they perceive they are making greater progress towards their ideal weight (1). And, the consumption of perceived healthful foods causes reduced self control in later food choices (2). But, the area that truly interests me is supplement taking. Regular readers will be aware that many supplements don't live up to their hype, in fact, many, such as high dose antioxidants, are outright harmful to our health. But, if we perceive the simple act of popping a pill as healthful and virtuous, do we go engaging in other health risking behaviours to counter its perceived benefit - in effect creating a double whammy of health jeopardising behaviour? And the answer appears to be a resounding yes.

A fascinating study published in Psychological Science set out to investigate reasons for why our increasing predilection for nutritional supplements is accompanied by concomitant rises in population disease levels (3). Researchers conducted a randomised intervention trial in which participants were knowingly given a multivitamin tablet or placebo, and their proceeding lifestyle behaviours were monitored.

But here's the rub; the researchers lied. There was no multivitamin tablet; all participants were given placebo. However, those who were under the impression that they had taken the multivitamin;

- expressed less desire to engage in physical activity

- expressed greater desire to engage in hedonistic behaviour (including casual sex, sun bathing, wild parties and excessive drinking)

- were more likely to choose a fast food buffet type option over an organic cooked meal.

The study researchers concluded that the simple act of popping a pill perceived to be healthful "creates an illusory sense of a hidden price: the curse of licenced self indulgence"

People often ask me why I am so vocal in my criticism of supplements such as curcurmin. OK the evidence isn't there to support healthful claims, but the reality is that it does no harm either, so what is the real harm in taking it? Well, on top of the fact that recommending ineffective supplements creates a noise which distracts us from the key supplements we genuinely need and should be focusing on (selenium, vitamin D, iodine etc), here is reason number two: its incorrectly perceived healthfulness will likely induce a later self indulgent act to end up with a net adverse effect on our health.

As a corollary to 'self licencing' I would like to introduce a case I witnessed this week, and one many of us can relate to. If we can replace a guilty indulgence of ours - a habit we know to be bad for us - with a more healthful option we still enjoy, we are obviously more likely to indulge even more. But what if our new found alternative is not so good for us after all? In this case, the individual had ditched his habit of consuming a 500ml soft drink about four to five times a week, switching to fruit juice, only now he was drinking fruit juice every day and consuming almost a litre. With fruit juice containing the same amount of sugar as Coca Cola, and linked to the same diseases (obesity, diabetes, heart disease) he may have boasted about his new lifestyle change, believed to be for the better, but in fact he had now fostered a new habit which dramatically increased his disease risk exposure.

The message is clear; it's not so innocent to be partaking in perceived healthful behaviour when the evidence does not back it. It's bad enough that there may be no attributable health effects but, that there is likely a later stealth charge takes it beyond pointless to counterproductive; jeopardising your wellbeing.

Aidan Goggins is author of the award winning The Health Delusion

(1) Wilcox, Keith, et al. "Vicarious goal fulfillment: When the mere presence of a healthy option leads to an ironically indulgent decision." Journal of Consumer Research 36.3 (2009): 380-393.

(2) Finkelstein, Stacey R., and Ayelet Fishbach. "When healthy food makes you hungry." Journal of Consumer Research 37.3 (2010): 357-367.

(3) Chiou, Wen-Bin, Chao-Chin Yang, and Chin-Sheng Wan. "Ironic Effects of Dietary Supplementation Illusory Invulnerability Created by Taking Dietary Supplements Licenses Health-Risk Behaviors." Psychological science 22.8 (2011): 1081-1086.