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 Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at the website

posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:15 AM


At 1:09 PM , Blogger punkboat said...

The problem with alcoholics having a stocked liquor cabinet, or ex-smokers having a pack lying around may not be one of temptation, but it is one of convenience.

While the presence of cigarettes, for example, may reduce the temptation to smoke, it does mean that if the temptation arises anyway, it isn't offset by any inconvenience. "I really feel like a smoke now because [I just got bad news... good news... I've been drinking...] but the nearest open store is 20 minutes away and it's raining, so, never mind." Contrast that with "I feel like a smoke and, look, there's a package of cigarettes."

At 1:43 PM , Blogger Greg said...

Excellent observation, punkboat! I think avoidance of the occasion of sin is generally the best practice, speaking only for myself.

At 10:40 PM , Blogger Nate Ring said...

I suppose this would also brings up a question in regard to ego-depletion.

At 3:17 AM , Blogger I'm Stranger than Fiction said...

I do know that, as an ex-smoker who hangs around with (indeed used to live with) smokers, I was never any more tempted to start again. Of course, I dont keep cigarettes around my house, and my friends wouldn't give me any if I asked, so not much danger either

At 10:31 AM , Blogger P M Prescott said...

What is left out of this equation by trying to use chocolate and then transfer that to alcohol or drugs is it doesn't account for physical dependence. Wants versus need would make a big difference in the outcome.

At 5:29 AM , Blogger IGBG said...

For me personally, the 'scarcity principle' is not valid. I do not not value things for their rarity. I do love good chocolate and the more the better.
That doesn't mean I have to eat tons of it. But I can eat chocolate every day and enjoy it no less than if I had it once a month. I think the 'scarcity principle' is something society has come up with, just to make you pay higher price for things less available (and may be not even worth it)..i.e. it's brain washing :)
I do agree with punkboat - we do many things just because of convenience.
For example, I will have a cookie in the office, because I am hungry, AND a fruit is not available.
Finally, a light-hearted comment on the barber shop. If the barber shop just happened to be on your way home, you may one day decide to get in and get that haircut. But if you walk out of your way to pass the barber shop...then you already know you want that haircut , so why deny it to yourself ;) As a friend of mine once said 'If you are not doing something just because you don't have to [but you want to], sooner or later you will do it'
Interesting blog entry, but not conclusive at all ...imho...