WASHINGTON—Ever chuckle when a friend orders diet—not regular—soda with his or her greasy burger and fries? Hold the smirk a minute, researchers say. They claim that a powerful behavior called "licensing" is at work.
It occurs when people allow themselves to indulge by doing something positive first. So at the burger joint, having a diet soda makes the meal's calories and cholesterol seem OK.
Researchers see the "licensing effect" in many realms, from marketing to fighting bad habits. They add that it works best if people don't know how it works.
"Doing something good, if you like, lets you do something bad," said Ravi Dhar, the director of the Center for Consumer Insights at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Conn.
Not surprisingly, it's a big issue for Weight Watchers International. Dieters might use their morning jogs as licenses to eat fudge sundaes in the evening, for no net weight loss. To counteract it, Weight Watchers uses support groups to call out sinners when they end workouts with milkshakes. The group also gives dieters a daily limit of food "points" to push them to accept responsibility for their choices.
The point system undoes dieters' licensing because it "forces them to say, `Do I want the bagel with cream cheese for 6 points and then have vegetable soup for dinner?'" said Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific officer at Weight Watchers.
Licensing isn't limited to food, as Dhar and fellow researcher Uzma Khan, a business school professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, demonstrated in an experiment last September. They first asked some participants in their study to select from a list a charity organization for which they'd willingly volunteer three hours a week. Later, these people—and participants who hadn't been asked to volunteer—were asked whether they'd buy designer jeans or an identically priced vacuum cleaner, assuming that they had enough money to buy only one.
Result: Those who'd first committed themselves to volunteer were twice as likely to go for the jeans.
Having seen themselves as generous, they allowed themselves to be selfish, according to Dhar. "The general idea is that choices signal the kind of person you are."
"Normally, people are consistent and committed to their self-image," said Dale Miller, a psychology professor at the Stanford Business School in Palo Alto, Calif. "With licensing, the first act doesn't commit you, it liberates you."
Licensing effects also show up at charity balls, galas and auctions, said Mark Rubin, co-owner of Signature Auctions, a New York company that specializes in charity fundraisers.
"At these events you have people who really want to support the charity, so the perceived value of what an item is worth becomes more than the actual value," Rubin said. "I'd say licensing is probably a good 30 to 35 percent component of why things go for the price they go for."
Miller's experiments in moral licensing also turned up a downside, in which managers who've declared their lack of bias in hiring license themselves to be prejudiced. Miller worries, for example, about job vacancies that require women and minorities to be included among the finalists. He suspects that the practice makes it easier for some managers to choose neither in the end.
Licensing also can work against charity if people feel licensed to spurn the Salvation Army, for example, because they've already given to United Way.
Understanding how licensing works, Khan said, is liberating.
"You can help people make more virtuous decisions by making them more aware of this effect."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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