We’ve all done it, reminded ourselves that we have been good before we do something bad. Perhaps just before we eat something a bit too fattening, buy that excessive luxury, or don’t giving a dollar to charity at the store we simply remind ourselves, “It’s okay, I was good earlier.” It’s so common, Subway ran an ad campaign on it in the ’90s. The logic being: come on, admit it, you were good earlier, so doing something questionable (like eating at Subway) doesn’t really count.
As it turns out, this is a well-studied psychological phenomenon, called Moral Licensing.
In a review of the studies of the subject, Anna C. Merritt, Daniel A. Effron, and Benoît Monin, found that “Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid.”