Moral License Effect: What It Is And How It Affects Our Actions

Moral license effect

Have you ever heard the expression “license to sin”? It is the equivalent of moral license effecta phenomenon of social psychology that explains why we sometimes act immorally, and also do not feel bad about it.

In this article we explain what exactly this concept consists of, according to various researchers, and what effects it can have. We also mention some examples of the same, and, finally, as a reflection, we analyze whether this effect is actually a form of self-deception or self-justification and why.

Moral license effect: what does it consist of?

The moral license effect, in English Self-licensing (“self-licensing”) or Licensing effectis also known as moral self-licensing or licensing effect.

It is a phenomenon of social psychology that describes the fact that greater self-confidence and security in oneself, in one’s self-concept and in one’s self-image makes us worry less about the consequences of immoral behavior we carry out.

Sometimes, this effect has also been called “license to sin”, and we explain why.

According to the moral license effect, “we would have a license to act immorally” (it is a self-granted license, of course), as a consequence of feeling so sure of ourselves.

The moral license effect, however, also has other meanings; This moral laxity would occur because, just before performing an immoral act (or next to it), we perform a correct or positive act from an ethical point of view, which would “reduce” the possibility of developing a feeling of guilt for the immoral act. It would be a way to “counteract” our bad act.

You may be interested:  How to Help a Child with Depression? 9 Useful Tips


Let’s take a very simple example to understand it: every time we have a hamburger with ketchup and fries (very caloric products), we also order a Diet Coke to accompany it.

This addition of Coca-Cola “counteracts”, for us, the negative consequences of having eaten so much junk food, because we “compensate” for it with Diet Coca-Cola. From a rational point of view, this may seem quite absurd, but through the moral license effect, we give ourselves that license to act “badly” or immorally.

Definitions and descriptions

The moral license effect has been defined and described by different authors and researchers. Two of them, Uzma Khan and Ravi Dhar defined the phenomenon as an effect that occurs unconsciously, and that gives a moral boost to the person who expresses it.

Although it may be a little difficult to understand, or even irrational, this “moral impulse” would cause the person to increase their preferences for certain types of immoral action. According to these authors, in addition, in the licensing effect, sometimes having a more positive self-concept can increase the probability of committing immoral acts.

Other researchers, such as Anna Merritt, along with her colleagues, believe that The fact of having carried out positive actions in the past “frees” the person from committing immoral acts.unethical or problematic.

It is as if good acts grant that license or “permission” to act worse in the future. According to Merritt, if such positive and moral actions had not been performed, the person would not be able to perform the immoral acts that he is committing.

You may be interested:  Emotional Blackmail: How to Detect and Confront a Blackmailer?


The moral license effect can lead to certain negative social consequences, since Since it is a “permissive” effect on immoral acts, it could “allow” acts of discrimination, racism, bad eating habits, etc. to occur.

Applications in everyday life

We have seen a simple example of the moral license effect (the Diet Coke and hamburger example), but There are many more that can help us better understand this concept..

Continuing with the example of eating habits and health, we can imagine another situation that illustrates this phenomenon. We have gone to the gym and done two classes in a row. We feel good about ourselves.

What happens next? We go out to the street, we pass by a very good pastry shop, the smell of their pastries reaches us from outside… we are on a diet, we “shouldn’t” go in or buy anything, but… wait!

We come from a double gym session, where we have surely burned a lot of calories. Well, nothing happens that way! We give ourselves that “license to sin”, we go into the bakery, we buy a cake and we eat it so deliciously, without regrets. Because, overall, we compensate for it with the previous “good deed”, that is, the hours at the gym. This is how the moral license effect occurs.

And so we could find a multitude of examples in our daily lives… also in the workplace, in more important decisions, in the emotional sphere and in interpersonal relationships (for example, giving a gift to our partner and then cheating on them with someone else). , etc.

You may be interested:  Depersonalization/derealization Disorder: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment of the Feeling of Unreality

As a reflection: a form of self-deception?

An interesting reflection that arises around this effect is the one that links it to a form of self-deception.. Thus, as a result of the previous example (the gym and the pastry shop), the following question may arise… is the moral license effect a form of self-deception? Well, probably, and on many occasions, yes. Through this effect, our mind “self-justifies” and gives itself that license to act badly. Each one acts as he wants, as he knows or as he can, nothing to say….

But can we justify that decision by the fact that we have acted well in the past? Probably not. What does one thing has to do with the other? Nothing… we act the way we act because we want to. That later we justify things as it suits us, is another story…

So, the moral license effect is a phenomenon that It can help us understand why we often commit immoral acts without feeling bad about it. (logically, these acts can be on a small scale or on a large scale…), and our mind (and if we go deeper, also our conscience) gives us a certain obstacle, a certain margin when it comes to sin…

This makes us feel calmer, with fewer regrets, and more likely to act “badly” (immorally) in the future.

Bibliographic references: