Productivity and Moral Self-Licensing

One (more) reason why people don’t straight-away do what they’ve said they would – and what to do about it

If you’ve ever been in a long meeting where lots of actions where agreed, and then found yourself wondering why people haven’t followed-through on those actions – or if you’ve ever spent a fair bit of time and effort making a to-do list yourself, only to then bunk-off instead of actually getting on with it – then you might find this useful.

In simple terms, Moral Self-Licensing is when people unconsciously allow themselves to indulge after they’ve done something positive.

Research suggests that it affects individual behaviour in a variety of contexts, including: consumer purchases, political opinions, charitable giving, energy policy, job hiring, racial attitudes, health-related decision-making, risky sexual behavior, alcohol consumption and diet.

In terms of productivity, the influence of Moral Self-Licensing is likely to mean a slump in achieving things between the planning and the doing stages. My experience with individual and team clients is that the effect is particularly pronounced when:

  • The issues that people were agreeing upon or planning actions for were especially difficult or threatening to address. This means that they feel unusually positive about having finally got down to addressing them and are (unconsciously) more likely to give themselves moral self-license to be ‘indulgent’ afterwards;
  • Physical energy levels are low and/or have been lowered by the planning or to-do-listing activities (especially likely when long journeys or stodgy meals are involved I suspect). I don’t know if there’s research to support this, but I’ve often thought that low energy levels are likely to reduce the threshold for moral self-license, since our mind/body systems are designed to look after our short-term survival and to prioritise food and rest now.

So what can you do if you notice that there’s a productivity slump between the planning and the action stages?

  1. Plan for it
    Since the tendency to be indulgent after we’ve done something positive is such a widespread and unconscious phenomena, it makes sense to me to expect it to happen. When you’ve had people in meetings and you all agree on a list of actions, why not explicitly agree an ‘indulgency period’ during which nobody is required to actually do anything productive until they’ve given themselves a treat of some kind;
  2. Actively be Rested and Healthy
    If it’s true that the productivity slump caused by moral self-license is more pronounced when people are already tired, then we can prepare for that by taking active steps to be properly rested and healthy. Less coffee and more naps, perhaps?
  3. Delegate
    Have somebody who wasn’t at the meeting, and who therefore won’t be experiencing their own moral self-license indulgence (at least, not yet), be responsible for reminding about, chasing and/or kick-starting the actions;
  4. Organise
    Make sure that your meetings, your decision-making-processes and the techniques you use to organise actions are as effective and as frictionless as possible. Consider using trained facilitators to help design agendas and processes. The less this feels like an effort, the less likely people are to indulge afterwards;
  5. Don’t Procrastinate
    The longer you put-off or fail to address difficult issues and tasks, the more you’re unconsciously likely to feel that you deserve an indulgence after you finally get around to deciding to do something about them.

 

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