Save a Plastic Bag, Help Destroy the World

I was at the supermarket the other day and my curiosity was tweaked by a sign near the checkout counter: “Save a Plastic Bag, Help Save the World.” The idea, of course, is that if we throw away fewer plastic bags, nature will benefit. Many such small virtuous actions can, in congregate, impart an enormous benefit.

Also underlying the slogan is another idea, which is generally unexpressed explicitly yet a part of our collective folk psychology, that good behavior leads to a virtuous circle: doing one good deed puts us in a beneficial mindset that leads us to do more good deeds. Just yesterday I saw a TV idea that neatly summed up this idea. On a split screen, it showed a woman taking two different paths in the course of her day. On the left side, she had an unhealthy breakfast, and proceeded to make more unhealthy eating choices throughout the day, had no energy, came home from work exhausted, watched TV, and was basically a loser. On the other side of the screen, she started out her day with the advertiser’s nutritious snack bar, proceeded to eat healthily throughout the day, exercised, and went out after work and had fun with her awesome friends. The difference in the two outcomes was all down to that single, simple decision at breakfast: to be a winner, or a slob?

Unfortunately, as psychological research has shown, human behavior doesn’t work like that at all. On the contrary: single, small acts of virtuous behavior actually predispose us to behave worse.

In a 2006 paper published in the Journal of Marketing Research, Uzma Khan of Carnegie Mellon and Ravi Dhar of Yale reported a series of studies in which they asked undergraduate students to imagine themselves engaging in various virtuous activities, such as donating money to charity or volunteering to teach children. Compared to control subjects, who spent the equivalent amount of time working on word puzzles, these do-gooders were more likely to indulge themselves by buying luxury items like designer jeans than practical items such as vacuum cleaners.

Why? Khan and Dhar suggested that behaving virtuously subconsciously boosts our self-image. When then presented with an opportunity to indulge ourselves, we feel better prepared to afford the dose of self-criticism that accompanies indulgent behavior. In effect we have been “licensed” by our prior good behavior to behave badly.

A more direct expression of the “licensing effect” is described in a paper just out this month in the Journal of Consumer Research. Sam K. Hui of New York University led a team than analyzed data take from radio-tracking tags affixed to shopping carts, so that the movement of consumers through stores could be recorded. In particular, they looked at whether the shoppers were frequenting areas of the store that carried “vice” items, such carbonated drinks, or “virtue” items, such as diet food. As the licensing effect would predict, the team found that “after purchasing virtue categories, consumers are more likely to shop at locations that carry vice categories.”

The important upshot of this research is that, if we’re not careful, small attempts to better ourselves can have a paradoxical effect, and cause us to sabotage ourselves. You could call it the “diet-soda effect.” One would assume that the appeal of nonfattening drinks is that help waistline-watchers cut down on their total calorie count. But in reality, many consumers seem to buy them primarily for their licensing effect. How many times have you seen someone load up their fast-food tray with supersized triple meatburgers, and then finish the order with an extra large diet Coke? Indeed, research has shown that on average, the more diet sodas a person drinks, the fatter they are.

Marketers understand consumers’ brains better than consumers do. Not long ago Subway used to run an ad in which a husband gets up in the middle of the night, turns on the living room light, and finds his wife on the sofa, bingeing on a pint of ice cream. It looks like she’s been caught red-handed in some illicit diet-busting, but instead of seeming ashamed, she boasts: “It’s okay, I had Subway for lunch!” I don’t know if the ad sold a lot of Subway sandwiches, but to me it demonstrated an impressive understanding of the licensing effect.

While this nefariously undermining effect is pervasive, it doesn’t have to undermine our efforts at self-control. The trick is simply to be aware of the psychological effects of our own actions. Don’t let small acts of virtue delude you into thinking that you’ve accomplished your goals. Consciously resist your unconscious tendency to license goal-undermining indulgences. Sure, save a plastic bag, but don’t pretend that you’ve just saved the world. Instead, take the opportunity to remind yourself of your commitment to the long-term process.

UPDATE: Since writing this post I’ve become aware of yet another great study on the subject, which suggests that consumers who make environmentally-friendly purchases are more likely to lie and steal.