Many people have difficulty resisting temptation, be it dietary, alcoholic or sexual. New research suggests one solution may involve doing less rather than more. That is, don’t stop and think about your options, as thinking may not help.
Northwestern University researchers Drs. Loran Nordgren and Eileen Chou set out to make sense of two contradictory bodies of literature.
One theory is that the presence of temptation may cause changes in rational thought processes in ways that promote impulsive behavior, said Nordgren. Another shows that “temptation engages protective [thought] processes that promote self-control. You show a dieter a piece of cake, and an early thought is ‘I’m dieting’ — and ‘no thanks.’”
Nordgren believes the descriptions are too simplistic as they leave out a crucial factor: the interaction between temptation and pressing individual needs (“visceral state”) — hunger, thirst, sexual desire, satiation or craving — which “dictates whether the same cognitive processes will be oriented toward impulsive behavior or self-control.”
To study this interaction, researchers looked at different cognitive mechanisms to see how temptation affected them.
In one experiment, 49 male students in committed relationships watched either an erotic film, putting them in an aroused (“hot” visceral) state; or a filmed fashion show, creating a “cool” state.
The experimenters then showed them images of attractive women and observed how long they gazed at them.
A week later, the procedure was the same, but the men were told the women were incoming students—thus, available. This time, the aroused men gazed longer. More temptation promoted less fidelity. The cool-state men did the opposite.
In a second study, some smokers out of a group of 53 were instructed to smoke directly before the experiment, while the rest abstained for three hours. Then both the satiated and craving groups rated the pleasure of smoking, showing how much they valued cigarettes.
Phase two, same conditions, same question—and a choice: Delay smoking for 40 minutes and earn 3 euros or smoke immediately and earn nothing.
Predictably, the sated smokers more readily delay gratification. But they also rated the pleasure of smoking lower than the first time, whereas the cravers rated it higher. The “cool” group gave themselves reasons to wait; the “hot,” to indulge.
What does all this tell us?
“If we think of the reason versus passion struggle, we tend to think that cognition serves long-term interests and passion serves immediate gratification—the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other,” Nordgren said.
“We also think that if you are horny or hungry, your thoughts—the angel—are in the right place, but you give into temptation—the devil.
“This is not accurate, actually. Yes, need or desire abets impulsivity, but it also corrupts the cognitive processes that would help you interrupt that behavior,” Nordgren said.
“When you’re craving and being tempted, your rationalization succumbing and so, in a hot state, you have the devil on both shoulders.”
The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.