The Why #53: Why do I always want something sweet after a healthy meal?

By Dan Monheit 28.10.22

Question submitted by Andrew, Caulfield

Yes, yes. I’m right there with you on this one Drew. But before we get into it, I’m gonna need a little more info on this ‘something sweet’. I mean, what are we talking here? A single square of 85% pure, organically certified chocolate? A humble teeVee snack? An unapologetic jam donut? Gourmet cookies? Artisanal lolly snakes? And where do you get them? What did you spend? Would you recommend them? C’mon man, details please!

For me, nothing tops off a poached chicken and spinach salad quite like a small mountain of Messina’s ‘Cone-Ception’ ice cream. Let’s give credit where credit is due people. If not for the geniuses at Messina, who would have discovered that waffle cones are actually far more delicious when they’re smashed up and worked directly into the ice cream? Things needed to change, and I, for one, am just so happy to be alive in these progressive times.

Now where were we? Oh yes, sweet treats. Fear not Andrew. While it’s possible you have a yet to be diagnosed sugar addiction, it’s far more likely that you’re falling victim to a funny little behavioural bias.

Licensing Effect

Licensing Effect refers to our core desire to maintain balance between our indulgent and virtuous selves. Psychologically, we work on an internalised bargaining system as our mind tries to constantly offset our positive acts against our negative ones to create equilibrium. Essentially, it’s our ‘because I did X, I deserve Y’ mentality.

In 2006, researchers Khan and Dhar set out to understand how recent, prior choices might impact our ‘in the moment’ decision making. The study involved randomly assigning participants into one of two groups. Group One participants were asked to review a list of charitable organisations and consider which ones they would happily volunteer three hours of their time towards.

Participants in both groups were then asked to choose between buying a vacuum cleaner or an identically priced pair of new designer jeans. ‘Why these two seemingly random objects?’ I hear you ask. Well on the one hand, a vacuum cleaner is likely to be deemed a necessary, sensible investment. A pair of trendy, designer jeans however? Not so much.

Khan and Dhar’s findings were striking. Participants in Group One (charity list viewers) were two times more likely to pick the jeans than their non-charity-list-viewing counterparts. It’s important to remember that at this stage, no charitable work had actually been done. The sheer thought of doing something virtuous was enough to steer Group One participants towards a self-proclaimed reward!

We’ve all seen Licensing Effect sneak into our lives far too often. Just splurged on a gift for your significant other? Time to buy yourself something nice. Had a big weekend on the booze? Time for a juice cleanse. Made a low-cal salad for dinner? You can totally have that ice-cream now! You get the picture.

For brands, consider whether you should be the treat, or the sensible offset to the treat someone has just indulged in. If you’re selling fast food, luxury goods or holidays, look for people who have just been (or at least thought about being) virtuous. If you’re a gym, health food subscription or charity, consider the best way to target people who need to get back in their own mental good books. Well done to you for learning something today. Time to reward yourself with a scroll on TikTok.

Behaviourally Yours,

Dan Monheit

PS If you missed the last edition, you can still check out why we are so bad at saving here.

Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about Licensing Effect in episode 9 of the Bad Decisions podcast.

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Want more?

Check out Dan and Think With Google’s ‘Messy Middle’ series on Decoding How Consumers Make Purchase Decisions here.



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We’re an independent creative agency helping brands capitalise on the why, when, where, what and how of human behaviour.