Last year, Ben Goldacre, the particularly articulate author of Bad Science, wrote an article which highlighted the ironic psychological interplay between apparently health promoting activites like taking vitamin pills, and actively damaging habits like smoking. Fundamentally, when many smokers take vitamin pills with apparently health-promoting initiative, this gives them a psychological “licensing effect” to be more liberal with how many cigarettes they then smoke.
The licensing effect is, in essence, the idea is that doing something that feels virtuous, such as purchasing a loved one a present, makes us feel unconsciously entitled to do something self-indulgent, like buy ourselves a present. This can turn into a vicious cycle of virtue-entitlement-virtue-entitlement, which in the context of present buying can leave you penniless over the Christmas season, or in the context of health, can shorten your life from excessive smoking, drinking, or eating of the avoidable foods.
Crucially to the health of the vitamin-taking smoker, the cumulative effect of the bad “licensing” habit can far outweigh the benefits seen from taking the pills in the first place, rendering the act of taking supplements an indirect cause of poorer health. There is some harsh irony here. If a fond memory of your own experience of the licensing effect doesn’t now draw a wry smile across your face, I would like to mention a study which demonstrates it, quite convincingly too. That is to say, this phenomenon is quite real.
If you consider it logically, I don’t think it’s a great leap of faith to accept that the licensing effect makes sense. If you feel as if you’ve upped your health on the one hand, it’s easy to succumb to a balancing act by permitting yourself indulgence in your vice. Obviously, the problem comes, unbeknownst to the layman, when the supposed health-promoting activity has little to no impact on wellness and longevity, but the guilty pleasure is actively harmful. The issue here is that average joe is not accurately weighing up the relative extents of the nefarious and the advantageous. You shouldn’t need a degree in Biology to learn to extend your life.
According to the above study, vitamins may cause an “illusory invulnerability”, and the public overestimate quite how healthy they are. I wouldn’t want to discourage those taking supplements, but they should be thought of as an insurance policy against eating a sub-optimal diet, rather than something to be relied on for vital nutrients. Indeed, most of the time vitamin pills are healthy and will prolong your life, so long as you don’t succumbe to the licensing effect.
I should make clear that the licensing effect is unlikely to be restricted to smokers and vitamin pills. Perhaps you didn’t take your vitamin pills but you ate some fruit for breakfast, or had the salad at lunchtime? Other examples of health-damaging activities resulting from the licensing effect include the greater propensity to drink alcohol or the higher appeal of sugary food rewards. It’s a very fundamental logic of compensation in one domain for another. It’s human nature. This study on 200,000 people revealed that antioxidant takers die sooner. Does this suggest that antioxidants aren’t the panacea that the media rushed to dub them? Or is this another case of the licensing effect, in full swing?
Perhaps the phenomenon of the licensing effect offers a good explanation for the fact that the growing obsession with supplements has not been linked to an associated improvement in public health. Could it be that we’re getting healthier and unhealthier at the same time, so the health effect of the supplement industry is cancelled out?
Rather than concluding in the normal way, I’d like to end on a question. The question I pose is, does a simple awareness of the licensing effect allow some self controlled individuals to psychologically override it? Or are those self-controlled people not the smokers in the first place?
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