Have you ever noticed there are discounted snacks conveniently placed right next to the produce aisle, or even scattered within the produce aisle itself? Well, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, this could be an intentional choice by grocery stores to take advantage of a phenomenon called the licensing effect.
Licensing is a psychological trick humans play on themselves to justify “bad” decisions because of “good” ones. It’s like justifying a purchase of a gallon of ice cream because you just bought some celery and lettuce for a salad you’ll (probably) make later. Oftentimes we’ll indulge in a guilty pleasure because we use our healthy decisions as a counterbalance to even out our not-so-healthy choices.
In the study, researchers placed a tracking device on grocery carts and examined their purchasing behavior. As it turns out, the more healthy food people add to their cart, the more likely it is that they will hit the sweets and snack food aisles. The more health-conscious foods you grab, the greater your desire to grab binge-worthy food.
This type of behavior is innately human, according to a New York Times article report on licensing. Other studies found that restaurant-goers were more likely to order less healthy food options if there were several healthy options available on the menu; just the presence of the healthy food on the menu made it more likely that restaurant patrons would order unhealthy food. In another study, more college students chose to watch an “easy-viewing” lowbrow movie than a highbrow culturally-enriching movie if they knew they could choose another movie next week. They mentally reasoned that they would get to the culturally-enriching movies later, and that gave them the excuse to watch the silly stuff.
It’s important to identify this pattern so licensing doesn’t make you feel entitled to fall into bad habits. If we’re going to take an extra sliver of cake, we shouldn’t do it because we ran a couple extra laps at the gym, but because we are deciding to take an extra sliver of cake. As with many things when it comes to weight control, it’s vital to understand why we choose to do what we do to change our behavior.