The Paradox of Temptation
Thursday, January 15, 2009
By Wray Herbert
There is a saying in many addiction recovery programs that goes like this: “If you keep going to the barber shop, eventually you’ll get a haircut.” Translated that means, stay away from temptation. Hanging around saloons or chocolatiers or raves or racetracks—name your poison—just increases the odds that your self-control will fail you someday.
But is this true? Does the mere availability of something tempting weaken the will to resist? The answer is of more than theoretical interest to public health experts, and the problem goes far beyond serious addictive disorders. Just think of all those Christmas cookies in your office recently. As our national obesity crisis shows, difficulties with discipline and self-control are widespread and harmful.
Let’s focus on sweets, just because these are a common and familiar temptation. Every self-control challenge is a tradeoff of one kind or another, and here it’s a tradeoff between satisfying a sweet tooth and commitment to good nutrition. Although it seems intuitively obvious that one should not keep bonbons in every room of the house, psychological theory argues the opposite. According to the so-called “scarcity principle,” we value things that are rare—gold, for example—and don’t much care for things that are common or readily available. This is the theory behind the folk wisdom that “forbidden fruit” only sharpens desire.
Three psychologists recently decided to test a paradoxical view of self-control based on the scarcity principle. Kristian Ove Myrseth and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago and Yaacov Trope of NYU predicted that increasing the availability of sweets would indeed deflate desire for them. They further speculated that this happens because availability of sweets is threatening to the loftier goal of good health, and so causes the mind to damp down desire to protect the greater good. In short, by making a tempting sweet readily available, we make it less tempting.
Here’s how they tested this notion. They stood at the exit door of a gym and buttonholed young women as they were leaving. They offered them a choice of power bars or chocolates, and had them rate their desire for each. Simple enough, but here’s the twist. Some rated their desire before choosing, and others right after—but before eating. The idea was to compare desire for chocolate when it was readily available, and when it was made unavailable.
The psychologists figured that young women at a gym would tend to be health conscious—and thus conflicted over the choice. They found that the women did indeed prefer the healthy power bars—that is, they devalued the chocolates; but this preference disappeared as soon as they made their choice, and the unhealthy temptation was no longer an option. So it appears that self-control does in fact operate paradoxically, by actually diminishing desire for what’s tempting and accessible.
But what if you could just change your mind? What if you had the option to ditch the health food and scarf down the chocolate instead? Does the mind keep desire flat for as long as the temptation remains an option? The psychologists decided to test this, but not with chocolates. Instead they created a self-control tradeoff involving work and play. They studied a group of graduate students in the University of Chicago’s school of business. Unhappily, these MBA students were enrolled in a really boring class—but one that they really needed to complete. They had these students rate the desirability of a number of leisure activities, like going to movies and partying and so forth.
Some rated leisure activity while they still had the option of dropping the boring class. Others did the rating after the deadline had passed for dropping the class. In other words, for some the decision was a done deal, while for others it was reversible. They found that, as long as they had the option of blowing off work for play, they continued to dampen their urge to play. It appears the mind protects itself against succumbing to temptation for as long as it must, and it does this by devaluing what’s most available.
These findings, reported in the February issue of Psychological Science, are a bit puzzling, and the authors raise some intriguing questions: Would dieters actually benefit from the sight of the dessert cart rolling by? Should alcoholics keep liquor in the liquor cabinet—paradoxically to help with self-control? The intuitive answer to such questions is no, but the evidence from these studies suggests that it might not be a resounding no.
For more insights into human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at the website http://www.sciam.com/.
posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:15 AM