Are We Wired to Deviate from What We Know Is Right?

Right or WrongMost of what we achieve in life is based on compromise. Getting exactly what we want is rare. Usually it’s give and take. Conflicting interests make it necessary to bargain constantly. However, we also haggle with ourselves when no one else is around to limit our options – often unconsciously. As behavioral scientists tell us, even under the best of circumstances, smart and regrettable choices balance each other out over time.

Taking the Long View Can
Make It Easier to Stay on Track

For example, several studies have shown that after having made positive decisions, people often tend to come up with less desirable ones. This phenomenon has become known as the “licensing effect,” and has first been systematically investigated by Dr. Uzma Khan, then a professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and Dr. Ravi Dhar of Yale University School of Management.

The outcome of their research is rather breathtaking. In essence, they say that once we have committed a “good deed,” for example by doing something completely altruistic, we will likely act more selfishly in the aftermath. Or, if we have restrained ourselves from engaging in a certain indulgence, we are bound to make up for it later on. In a way, you might say, our nature keeps a constant balance between right and wrong, as if on autopilot.

Such shifts from one state of mind to another can be extremely subtle and hardly noticeable. What’s even more curious is that those who pride themselves in having great self-control often turn out to be the most vulnerable to these dynamics.

For instance, a study from Taiwan found that taking dietary supplements gave users all sorts of excuses for less-than-healthy eating behavior. Even cigarette smokers felt they were home free when they took a daily dose of vitamin C.

Other research showed that even self-professed health-conscious people had no qualms about indulging in notoriously caloric fast food as long as healthier alternatives like salad or fruit were listed on a menu as well.

They also routinely underestimated calorie counts when items they perceived as healthy were offered. In some cases, as little as a few carrot or celery sticks added to their meal could seduce study participants into thinking their overall calorie intake would diminish and they now had ‘permission’ to enjoy whatever they wanted.

Experts say the phenomenon of people taking actions that in essence cancel each other out is by no means limited to eating behavior. It has been argued that the introduction of seatbelts, bike helmets, and protective gear in sports has also promoted riskier conduct among drivers and athletes. But with diet and lifestyle choices, the risks are harder to determine because negative outcomes like weight problems, diseases, disability, and mortality only become apparent over time. And actions that do not lead to results we can recognize as cause and effect are more difficult to keep control over.

Still, taking the long view may be the best strategy to maintain consistency with one’s goals. As a study from Switzerland showed, dieters who were more interested in developing altogether better eating and lifestyle habits had a greater long-term success rate in keeping their weight down than their counterparts who primarily focused on shedding pounds. In other words, they defined their actions in terms of how they wanted to live their lives, rather than by what they could accomplish in the short run. This way, they were better equipped to stay generally on track, even if they wavered on occasion.

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