Mental wellbeing

Temptation is stronger than we realize

mmm tempting Most of us overestimate our powers of self-control

Newspaper headlines are full of events caused by our inability to resist temptation - from binge drinking and overeating to celebrity affairs and bankers' greed.

Now it seems there is a reason for all this - the more we think we can control ourselves, the more likely we are to give in to temptation, according to a new study from the Kellogg School of Management.

It suggests that people in a "cold" emotional state who think they have high levels of self control are more likely to succumb to temptation when it presents itself, and also more likely to allow themselves to be tempted, probably because they believe that they can resist.

Previous studies showed that calm people have difficulty imagining how powerful impulses can be when presented with something desirable.

In the new study the researchers decided to test the ability of people to assess their own level of self-control and then see how that compares with actual response to temptation.

A number of experiments were created to determine this. For example, one experiment focused on cigarette addiction found those who overestimated their capacity for self-control were much more likely to smoke a cigarette after simply watching a movie about smoking.

In another, snacks were offered to two groups, one consisting of people who had been well fed and the other of hungry people. The well fed group were less likely to refuse, showing that the hungry people had a better understanding of their ability to say no.

Study leader Loran Nordgren said: "A system which assumes people will control themselves is going to fall prey to this restraint bias; we expose ourselves to more temptation than is wise, and subsequently we have millions of people suffering with obesity, addictions and other unhealthy lifestyles."

"And, while our study focused on personal behaviours like smoking and eating, it is easy to apply our findings to a broader context. Understanding the power of temptation, you might also ask about the extent to which we need oversight or regulatory guidelines for business and political leaders," she added.

This article was published on Tue 4 August 2009

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