Why doing good can lead to doing bad: How moral licensing influences consumer behaviour and buying

Did you know that people who have recently signed up with green energy providers are more likely to have an affair?

Surprising, but true. This is due to a concept called moral licensing, where the more an individual feels affirmed in their own goodness and moral worth, the less they worry about making immoral choices. This unconscious bias has been found through behavioural science techniques which analyse the passive data trails which can tell us a lot more about a person than what would be self-reported in a survey or focus group.

One impact of this is that actions we take to improve our wellbeing often lead to a worsening in our health. For instance in one experiment consumers who believed they had started taking vitamin pills began exercising less, eating less healthily and engaging in more hedonistic behaviour. People who start going to the gym are more likely to put on weight then lose it, as they allow themselves to indulge more in unhealthy food, believing they have earned it on the treadmill.

This effect was also recorded in the US election of Barack Obama, when people who had voted for Obama started to be more open with their views on prioritising white people over black people, as they felt their vote had given them the self-endorsement against bias they needed to feel comfortable expressing racially prejudiced views. Who knows what self-affirmation Americans will feel after voting for Trump?

This is important for brands because it changes how we think about consumers – as dynamic rather than fixed decision makers. Current targeting suggests that a consumer who has bought one green/ethical/Fairtrade product is a consumer who is more interested in those products. However moral licensing suggests that, actually, shortly after buying an ethical product, a consumer is more likely to give into the temptation of products they consider less ethical or good.

Research by Khan and Dhar suggests that consumers who indulge in self-affirming thoughts are far more likely to buy luxury or indulgent items. As targeting becomes more dynamic, luxury goods retailers can tap into moments when consumers will be more open to indulgence, while snack brands can identify when consumers are open to temptation for unconscious reasons they cannot explain. Mobile ads can hit consumers shortly after they have been to the gym, with the temptation of chocolate or a pizza dinner, or online ads can target consumers who have just visited a gifting site, with personal gifts they may want to buy themselves.

Similarly consumers who have indulged in negative behaviours will want to top up their self-affirmation with ethical choices. As such charities, ethical goods and similar products can target Sunday mornings after the night before, when young people will feel they need to make up for their hedonistic and drunken choices. Value brands, such as Aldi or Plusnet, can target consumers after they have visited holiday sites, and feel the need to offset their holiday splurge by buying cost-effective items for the year.

Our view of targeting relevant consumers should rely on understanding human behaviour and motivation as dynamic, and not fixed. As such we should consider targeting consumers at key moments, when we know their desires will be unconsciously different, rather than defining people into unmoveable categories that don’t take into account our shifting motivations and desires.

William Hanmer-Lloyd is the behavioural planning director at Total Media

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