Behavioural myth busters: moral licensing

26 Mar 2019  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
Behavioural myth busters: moral licensing

Do something bad, and you're likely to compensate with a good deed - or vice versa. Here, William Hanmer-Lloyd explains how advertisers can use this behavioural quirk to improve targeting

People who have recently signed up to green energy are more likely to have an affair. People who have recently started taking vitamin pills are more likely to eat junk food, start exercising less and generally engage in hedonistic pursuits. And people who start going to the gym are actually more likely to put on weight than lose it.

This is because of ‘Moral Licensing', a psychological phenomenon that means the more we affirm or strengthen our own self-image - by doing acts that we perceive as good means the more we feel allowed to engage in immoral behaviour (or behaviour we perceive as immoral).

Someone who starts going to the gym will feel they have been good, and that they therefore deserve to indulge in unhealthy food, which usually adds up to far more calories than an hour in the gym burns.

What is interesting about this mental process is that it is often unconscious. We don’t realise that we are doing it. For example, a study showed that after the election of Barack Obama in the US, people who had voted Obama were more open in favouring white people over black people, as they felt that voting for a black President had affirmed their self-identity as not racist, enabling them to display openly racist views.

The same process applies to our consumer decisions.  Research by Khan and Dhar that suggests that people are more likely to buy luxury or extravagant items if they have been indulging in self-affirming thoughts, because they feel they can treat themselves.

Moral licensing can also work in reverse. When people have committed behaviour they consider immoral, they feel they have to make up for it by doing good. This can be consciously done, but also unconsciously.

Someone is more likely to give money to a homeless person if they have screwed someone over at work, or are more likely to help a friend move house if they have recently hurt their partner, because it reinforces their self-belief that they are a good person.

This unconscious phenomenon is important in advertising for two reasons.

Firstly, because it again highlights the fact that humans are often very poor at explaining their behaviour and why they have done things. No one ever says they have cheated on their partner because they signed up to green energy, and people don’t say they started eating junk food again because they were taking vitamin pills.

Secondly, it provides opportunities to expand targeting beyond traditional ways of thinking about audiences. Current audience segmentation will often try to find the perfect target audience to reach, taking indicators like going to the gym and general health attitudes, and assume that they are always more interested in healthy brands. In reality, moral licensing suggests that just after someone has been to the gym they will often be more interested in indulging.

This opens up the potential to target a much broader audience for a whole range of brands whose products have negative or positive moral connotations, to target moments when consumers will be more open to them.

Online ads can target consumers who have just visited a gifting site, with personal treats they may want to buy for themselves, or mobile ads can hit consumers shortly after they have been to the gym, with the temptation of chocolate or pizza for dinner.

Charities can look past reaching traditional charitable givers, and instead try to reach people after those times when their self-image will have been compromised (heavy Saturday nights, binge watching eight hours of Man vs. Food, expensive purchases of frivolous items) and they want to reaffirm their sense of moral self-worth.

Overall, moral licensing doesn’t totally change how we should view targeting. But as media gets better at targeting moments in people’s lives, and not just different types of people, it does open up new considerations for who and when we should target consumers with brands that have ethical considerations.

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William Hanmer-Lloyd is Total Media's head of behavioural planning. He contributes monthly to Mediatel News, examining the ways behavioural science radically challenges some of the historic approaches of the ad industry.

Part one: Why is behavioural science important to advertising?

Part two: Self-reported data

Part three: Audience decision making

Part four: There are no universal rules for influencing people

Part five: Research and perception change

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19 Jul 2019 

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