How your brain makes you do bad things after doing good
APRIL 13, 2017
Insightful message in my email inbox. Habits expert Nir Eyal writes: “…moralizing your choices as “good” or “bad” only increases your chances of messing up again.” Then what should you do?

“Well done you, you workout badass,” so you tell yourself right after exercising, “you deserve the biggest burger on the menu!” This type of situation might seem familiar to you. This strange idea is something retailers also make clever use of. Shoppers pass the produce aisle first, to next go all out in the cookie aisle.

A good example of this from last year. Green handymen taking energy efficiency measures like better insulation or solar panels, start using more energy. This rebound effect offsets the energy efficiency gains by a third!

But research also shows people who have just purchased sustainable goods are subsequently more like to cheat and steal. That is a whole other level of moral conundrum. Hmm… I’m seeing myself in a different light now.

Moral “superiority” also affects people in organisations. From my days in Rwanda I remember a friend working for an organisation committed to rights of children. She regretfully sighed at her colleagues thinking the world of themselves because “they did it all for those poor children” so much that they forgot to get off their behinds and actually do something!

How does that work? Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains this kind of rebound effect:


“When you do something good, you feel good about yourself. This means you’re more likely to trust your impulses—which often means giving yourself permission to do something bad.”
So what should you do? McGonigal: “What you should do instead, is label your behaviour as either getting you closer or further away from what you really want.”

It’s somewhat like Carol Dweck’s “the effort effect“. Praising someone for who they are (“You are such an amazing artist”) or just how great a result is, may even backfire and contribute to performance anxiety. It is better to praise the effort, the process with its ups and downs. And appreciate the specific effort towards a goal. “Wow, what did you do specifically to get your team members reaching their targets this fast?” in stead of just saying “Good job!” Encouragement beats superficial praise.

I’m almost done writing today’s blog. Well done, me! Oh, wait…

Know any more good examples of how moral praise backfires? Individual or by organisations?


The inspiration for writing today’s blog has been a guest post on Nir Eyal’s blog, ‘The strange way good habits hurt your willpower’

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