Can immoral actions lead to healthy eating?

What factors influence healthy eating habits? Do we eat healthy foods just to maintain a well-balanced diet, or is there more to it? I’ll be honest. Although I consider myself a fairly healthy eater (I try to get in as many fruits and veggies a day that I can), when faced with two choices—one healthy like an apple or one unhealthy like a brownie—I do not always run straight for the apple. Maybe it’s because I have a massive sweet tooth. Maybe it’s because I am not as healthy as I think I am. Or maybe something more is going on.

In the world of social psychology, my sweet tooth would not be to blame for choosing the brownie. In a recent study, social psychologists Christian Weibel, Claude Messner, and Adrian Brügger investigated the relationship between morality and food choices. Before reading this article, I was totally unaware that a possible relationship existed between these two things. In the study, the researchers considered the theory of self-licensing—the tendency to compensate for previous moral or immoral actions—and its effect on healthy food choices. This theory explains how a completed moral action tends to heighten one’s “moral self-concept” and therefore, lower ones feeling or need to act morally. In contrast, one tends to compensate for having completed an immoral action by acting more morally in the future. Previous studies have shown how judgments can be made based upon what and how much people eat. These judgments can extend to morality. For example, one study suggested that people rate those who eat non-fattening foods as more moral than those who eat fattening foods. Weibel et al. explored if self-licensing could be applied to choosing healthy food.

In comparison with the self-licensing theory comes the goal theory. The goal theory focuses on intended actions and ultimately suggests that people will tend to act consistently in the future in terms of prior actions. The self-licensing theory, on the other hand, infers that people would be acting inconsistently between actions (i.e. acting immoral and then subsequently eating an apple to compensate for previous behavior). Here we have two conflicting theories! Weibel et al. set out to test both of these theories in their study.

Overall, the researchers conducted two experiments. The first experiment investigated the self-licensing theory and had two groups of participants. One group would recall an altruistic action, while one group would recall an egoistic action. After the recall, the participants would ultimately choose between healthy and unhealthy food choices. In the second study, there was a similar setup, only this time, the researchers examined which food choice participants would make after forming either an altruistic or egoistic behavioral intention for the future. This second study is more goal theory oriented, as the researchers tested whether participants would have consistent behavior with their moral intentions.

Time for results! Overall, Weibel et al. found that recalling one’s past moral or immoral action or stating behavioral intentions of acting morally or immorally can have an impact on how people decide what to consume. For example, in experiment one, the study found that participants who recalled an immoral action more often chose a healthy food option than those recalling a moral action (and vice versa). Additionally, the study suggests in experiment two that participants intending a future immoral action decreased the preference for healthy food options (and vice versa for moral actions). The study ultimately provides evidence for the self-licensing theory only when people have completed moral or immoral actions, but suggests the opposite effect when people state moral or immoral intentions for the future (consistent with the goal theory).

So what does all of this mean? The next time you reach for that brownie, you should try to recall a recently completed immoral action that you have done in hopes you will change your mind and choose the apple. Just kidding. This research does have some implication for food advertisers. For example, advertisers trying to promote the sale of unhealthy foods could improve sales if these foods were linked with some completed moral action. On a slightly different note, future research could investigate how moral primes (for example, pictures of people volunteering) could be used to promote healthy food choices, likewise to the effects of intended moral actions.

Weibel, C., Messner, C., & Brügger, A. (2014). Completed egoism and intended altruism boost healthy food choices. Appetite, 77, 38-45.


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