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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Willpower’ Category

The “Moral Licensing” effect

In a previous post I looked at research on “ego depletion” and “low willpower” (eg exhausted “self-control” type metaphors). This one casts a glance at the “moral licensing” effect…

‘Moral licence’ refers to our increased tendency to act ‘immorally’ if we’ve already displayed our ‘moral’ rectitude. For example, one pioneering study showed that people are more likely to express racial prejudice, sexism, etc, “when their past behavior has established their credentials as nonprejudiced persons.”

Another study found that people give less to charity if they’ve just thought about themselves in terms of positive traits (Sachdeva, Iliev, Medin; 2009). Another showed that folks are more likely to cheat in a maths test if they’ve just recalled a time when they acted morally (Jordan, Mullen & Murnighan; 2011). Yet another found that “people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products”.

The list of research is quite long – it seems a well-established phenomenon. (Several examples are mentioned in this meta-study/review).

‘Self-control’, ‘Willpower’, etc

What does moral licensing have to do with “willpower”? Consider the report of soaring sales of Big Macs after McDonald’s added healthier items to its menu. As Kelly McGonigal (in Maximum Willpower) puts it:

“whenever we have conflicting desires, being good gives us permission to be a little bit bad. Importantly, this is not just a matter of running out of blood sugar or willpower. When psychologists ask people about their licensed indulgences, the indulgers report feeling in control of their choices, not out of control. […]”

“most people think of all forms of self-control as a moral test. Giving in to dessert, sleeping late, carrying credit card debt – we use them to determine whether we are being good or bad.” (McGonigal, Kelly; Maximum Willpower. Macmillan)

We might think of it as a reasonable balancing of the “good” and “bad” (eg the healthy & unhealthy), but it often doesn’t work out that way. The aura of goodness (eg the mere thought of eating a salad, a good intention) is apparently enough to ‘license’ us to indulge (or act immorally) – as long as that prior moral goodness is our own (the research consistently shows little or no licensing effect when subjects are simply “primed” with thoughts of moral behaviour unassociated with their own actions).

Thus, moral licensing apparently ‘tricks’ us into acting against our “best interests” while we’re framing things in terms of ‘self-control’. A popular metaphor for this process is ‘self-sabotage’.

‘Highbrow’ vs ‘Lowbrow’ consumer choice

Many of our spending decisions seem tinged with morality. Buying frivolous or luxury items comes with feelings of guilt and “self-indulgence”. According to moral licensing logic, decisions which establish a person’s ethical credentials should provide a licence for indulgence. Some research seems to support this:

“We show that prior choices, which activate and boost the self-concept, are likely to subsequently license more self-indulgent choices. We propose that licensing can operate through an expression of intent to be virtuous, which reduces negative self-attributions associated with the purchase of relative luxuries.” (Khan & Dhar, 2005:  ‘Licensing Effect in Consumer Choice’)

In a later study (Khan & Dhar, 2007), participants chose a free film rental from a list containing both ‘highbrow’ (eg Schindler’s List) and ‘lowbrow’ (eg Bruce Almighty) films. A separate group had rated the highbrow films as more virtuous. It turned out that participants were more likely to choose a ‘lowbrow’ film if they were aware that the same choice would be repeated in a week’s time (relative to participants who were not aware of the future choice). Here’s how the authors of the study explain this:

“Our account proposed that the optimistic belief in one’s ability to choose a virtuous option in the future reduces the anticipated guilt arising from not exercising self-control and choosing a vice in the present.” (Khan & Dhar, 2007; ‘The Effect of Future Choices on Self-control’)

Whore-addicted Christian evangelists &
Passive-aggressive campaigners

Some occupations have a built-in supply of moral righteousness. So, who can blame the evangelical Christian pastor who ended up robbing banks to fund his addiction to expensive whores (true story). Or the ‘zero tolerance’ cop gone bad? Or the adulterous ‘family values’ politician, etc?

Incidentally, self-discipline and self-control top the hierarchy of moral importance in the conservative “strict father”, or “authoritarian”, moral framing system. I wrote about this here. I won’t draw any inferences about this with regard to moral licensing. I just mention it in passing…

On the other hand, I think of the unpleasant ‘passive-aggressive’ behaviour of certain altruistic, compassionate campaigning groups who wear their altruistic compassion like a badge. Again, no inferences drawn, and mentioning no names. I’m probably just imagining it.

Moral Licence vs Cognitive Dissonance

All of this brings up a tricky question: When does previous ‘moral’ behaviour license, and when does it constrain people to act consistently with those past ‘good’ actions? Cognitive dissonance theory would seem to predict the opposite of moral licensing – ie that people feel uncomfortable acting in a way that’s inconsistent with how they already view themselves.

Merritt, Effron & Monin (2010) suggest that it depends on whether the previous ‘moral’ behaviour is framed as “commitment” (eg to a task we identify with) or “progress” (on a task we’re obligated to do) – with the former being less likely to result in moral licensing. They cite the classic 1975 study (Miller, Brickman and Bolen) which found that children who were told repeatedly that they were “tidy” littered less than a group who were told that they should be tidy. They comment: “It appears that the labeling made children feel committed to neatness rather than licensed to litter”.

A different way of putting it is provided by Kelly McGonigal:

“Moral licensing turns out to be, at its core, an identity crisis. We only reward ourselves for good behaviour if we believe that who we really are is the self that wants to be bad. From this point of view, every act of self-control is a punishment, and only self-indulgence is a reward. Moving beyond moral licensing requires knowing that who we are is the self that wants the best for us – and the self that wants to live in line with our core values. When this happens, we will no longer view the impulsive, lazy or easily tempted self as the “real” us. We will no longer act like someone who must be bribed, tricked or forced to pursue our goals, and then rewarded for making any effort at all.” (McGonigal, Kelly; Maximum Willpower. Macmillan)

Did you get that? “Identity crisis”, “Who we really are”, “the self that wants to be bad” vs “the self that wants the best for us”? If it’s not confusing enough already, let me quote gratuitously from Lakoff & Johnson on the ‘structure of the subject-self metaphor system’:

‘Our metaphoric conceptions of inner life have a hierarchical structure. At the highest level, there is a general Subject-Self metaphor, which conceptualizes a person as bifurcated [forked, in two parts]. The exact nature of this bifurcation is specified more precisely one level down, where there are five specific instances of the metaphor.’ (Philosophy in the Flesh, by Lakoff & Johnson).

Okay, that’s enough of that for now. But you get an idea of where this is headed…

Meanwhile, here’s Paul Calf reflecting on self-control:

Written by NewsFrames

August 22, 2012 at 8:37 am

“Willpower depletion” & you

June 13, 2012 – Most of us seem prone to distraction, which suggests a problem with summoning “willpower”. This appears to be “social” – part of “fitting in”. To make things worse, it seems that advertisers and the media conspire to have us associating distraction with… pleasure.

We can’t think about this stuff without metaphor. We could talk about “real” things: serotonin, dopamine, etc – but we’d have to use metaphor eventually. So, distraction appears outside us, but then becomes “internalised” and “self-reinforcing”. After a busy, distracting day, we try to relax by distracting ourselves further (eg by watching TV news). Eventually our own minds become distracting.

It might seem like a problem. But then we start thinking in terms of mental “discipline”, “vigilance”, “self-denial”, etc – “solutions”. Or we might invoke management jargon, with its emphasis on “control”, “efficiency”, “planning”. Vigilance! Regimen! Abstention! It sounds like an anal-retentive’s lexicon. Surely there’s another way..?

Luckily, the blossoming fields of neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology are not ignoring “willpower”. On the contrary, they’re producing truckloads of fascinating research – including new(ish) ways to think about it…

“Self-control” & “ego depletion”

The term “ego depletion” seems to have taken off, having appeared in thousands of scientific papers. Its popularity in the field seems due to its usefulness in “explaining” a wide assortment of behaviours reflecting poor “self-control”.

The basic idea is a sort of energy model (or metaphor) of “self”. The “energy” gets depleted and needs to be replenished, and this determines our available “willpower”. The researcher who coined the phrase “ego depletion” says he used the term “ego” as a kind of homage to Freud’s insights regarding the old “libido” energy-model of self.

One of the early studies on ego depletion (the ‘Radish & Chocolate’ experiment) raised the question: Why would the act of resisting chocolate-chip cookies lead to poor perseverance in trying to solve a geometry puzzle? (The experiment had compared the geometry-solving perseverance of a group of tempted radish-eating students to that of both cookie-eating and hungry – but untempted – students).

One of the authors of the study, Roy Baumeister (with co-author John Tierney), commented:

The old folk wisdom about willpower appeared to be correct after all, unlike the newer and fancier psychological theories of the self. Willpower looked like much more than a metaphor. It seemed to be like a muscle that could be fatigued through use. (Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)

Of course, in thinking about it as a “power”, or as “like a muscle”, we’re still in the realm of conceptual metaphor. Baumeister later uses the metaphor of a willpower “stock”, “supply” “reservoir” and “source of energy”:

1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

You might think you have one reservoir of self-control for work, another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice to your family. But the radish experiment showed that two completely unrelated activities – resisting chocolate and working on geometry puzzles – drew on the same source of energy, and this phenomenon has been demonstrated over and over. There are hidden connections among the wildly different things you do all day. You use the same supply of willpower to deal with frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying colleagues, demanding bosses, pouting children. (Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)

If you don’t yet see the significance here of metaphor, consider that while the “fatigued muscle” and “drained reservoir” metaphors might both be useful ways to think about these aspects of “self”, muscles behave very differently from reservoirs. We can’t think about “self-control” without metaphor, and it’s fine to use multiple, diverse metaphors (we do it all the time without noticing), but each conceptual metaphor has its own set of inferences. You can’t strengthen a reservoir through exercise, although you can fill it back to its original level.

No unpleasantness

‘Ego depletion’ has been described by researchers as like an illness with no symptoms – a condition which doesn’t “feel” like anything. But it seems there are tell-tale signs, the most obvious being a tendency to react (emotionally) more strongly to all sorts of things, plus intensified desires and appetites. As Baumeister & Tierney put it, “Ego depletion thus creates a double whammy: your willpower is diminished and your cravings feel stronger than ever”.

You may have noticed, for example, that you get irritable when you’re trying to quit some habitual/addictive behaviour. Or you find yourself craving junk food. Or perhaps you just get disheartened and depressed more easily than usual. In the ego-depletion thesis, these behaviours/states result from placing demands on your ‘stock’ of willpower – the same stock which is used for controlling thoughts, emotions and other “impulses”. The increased irritation (or craving or other reaction) is often the very thing which causes you to abandon your attempt (to quit smoking, or whatever is demanding more ‘willpower’ than usual).

People usually associate willpower with so-called “impulse control” (the ability to resist temptations such as alcohol, tobacco and chocolate) or “performance control” (focusing your attention, persevering with a task, etc), but not with control of thoughts and emotions.

We tend to use “computational” metaphors for “rational thought” – we conceive of thinking as being about information processing rather than “energy resources”. And yet controlled thinking (eg trying to solve a difficult geometry puzzle) drains your ‘willpower’ reservoir, according to the scientific research on ego-depletion. How is this relevant to anything? Well, while we might make allowances for poor “performance” when we feel completely “drained” (ie exhausted), we probably don’t imagine that fluctuations in our “energy levels” affect how we “rationally” think.

“Decision fatigue”

Consider the study (‘Extraneous factors in judicial decisions’) which found that judges were more likely to be lenient in granting parole if they’d just had a snack break. The judges themselves weren’t aware that pausing for a sandwich affected their “rational” decision-making processes.

The slightly “drained” pre-snack judges tended to go for the less risky option (keeping the prisoners locked up) – compared to their decisions made after refreshments. As the study’s authors (Danziger, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso) write:

We have presented evidence suggesting that when judges make repeated rulings, they show an increased tendency to rule in favor of the status quo. This tendency can be overcome by taking a break to eat a meal, consistent with previous research demonstrating the effects of a short rest, positive mood, and glucose on mental resource replenishment. (‘Extraneous factors in judicial decisions’)

Or, in the words of Baumeister & Tierney, “Decision making depletes your willpower, and once your willpower is depleted, you’re less able to make decisions”.

Of course, decisions on more important matters, such as going to war, are taken on a much more “rational” basis – they don’t depend on snacks. Of course. (See Oliver Stone’s film, W., for more details…).

Boost Your Willpower!

This is about you. Want to give up smoking, increase your concentration? Wouldn’t the ladies be more impressed if you had a larger attention span? Are you wasting your days on Twitter? And what about managing your anger and irritation more effectively? Do you think people haven’t noticed how argu-mental you seem at times?

It’s all about this “ego depletion” thing. And did you know that, according to this theory, activities such as meditation can strengthen your willpower? I’ll try to explain, but right now there’s a car alarm going off outside, and I can’t concentrate. Those noisy bastards, no consideration for others… who’d want to steal their piece-of-shit car anyway… [etc]

(To be continued…)


Written by NewsFrames

June 12, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Metaphor, Willpower

Framing, distraction & “willpower”

“If quantum mechanics [metaphorical framing] hasn’t
profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet”.

— Niels Bohr (quote vandalism mine)

One of my overreaching aims for this blog is to spark enthusiasm & “eureka” moments. Unfortunately, familiarity with the term “framing” seems to give a false sense of “knowing all about it” for many people (especially busy journalists). Epiphanies (intellectual orgasms, sort of) will never occur with that bored, weary, “been there, done that” mindset – there are many new thrills and unpredictable insights to enjoy with this subject…

Particularly stimulating to me is recent scientific research on “willpower” and “self-control” – coming at it from my perspective of metaphorical framing, that is. “Willpower” is a Victorian metaphor which had (until recently) gone out of favour with psychologists:

As Victorians fretted over moral decay and the social pathologies concentrated in cities, they looked for something more tangible than divine grace, some internal strength that could protect even an atheist.
They began using the term willpower because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved – some inner equivalent to the steam powering the Industrial Revolution.
(Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)

The “force” and “energy” type metaphors (for ‘self-control’) have now come back into fashion among academics, it seems – thanks to some fascinating scientific research on “willpower depletion” (or “ego depletion”), etc. I’ll be summarising these findings in a short series of News Frames posts, but, meanwhile, if you have enough willpower to tear yourself away from Twitter and read a book, I’d recommend a couple of very readable popularisations of the topic: Willpower – Rediscovering our Greatest Strength, by Roy Baumeister & John Tierney, and Maximum Willpower: How to master the new science of self-control, by Kelly McGonigal.

Both books offer practical tips while giving an overview of the science. What they don’t do is join up with Lakoff-style research on cognitive semantics to provide a bigger and even more stimulating picture. That’s a picture I hope to modestly sketch out in a few articles (since nobody else seems to be doing it). As a taster: Lakoff has documented how we tend to think of self-control using metaphors of object control (eg inferences regarding forced movement of an object are applied to our abstract notion of “self”. This is noticeable in common expressions: “Have you been pushing yourself too hard lately?”).

“Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think”.
— Niels Bohr

And, of course, it all dovetails (with enough ingenuity or bluffing on my part) with the equally important topic of media distraction – and how it’s probably damaging your brain. Years ago – before I was aware of either Lakoff’s work or the new science on ‘willpower’ – I wrote a brief piece called The Distraction System for my Anxiety Culture project. In it, I use the phrase: “tap into a reservoir of potential concentration” – which, at the time, seemed a dubious metaphor (I liked the sound of it, so left it in). Baumeister’s recent work indicates that far from being dubious, the “reservoir of potential concentration” metaphor seems a good ‘fit’ for what the recent scientific research tells us about the processes involved.

More to follow on this topic…

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

May 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm