Hard to Resist Temptation? Here Is How to Regain Control
For people who cannot resist, knowledge is willpower.
Posted Dec 01, 2019
Everyone has experienced it; the lure of temptation. The desire to indulge in things we enjoy—from products to pursuits, when we know we shouldn´t. Sure, we have heard that we should consume everything in moderation. But not everyone can follow that advice. So in the face of enticement, is there a way to strengthen our resolve?
In a prior column aptly named “Got Cravings?”I explain that habits help. Research reveals that healthy habits are instrumental in resisting temptation. But what about people who for whatever reason, do not develop healthy habits?
Apparently, there is much to be learned by considering the concept of self-control. You probably know right now whether you have it or you don´t. The good news for people who don´t: recognizing the problem, can be the solution.
What Tempts Us?
Most people have specific areas of weakness. From donuts to French fries, hot dogs to hot fudge sundaes, food cravings are commonplace. We are also tempted by the lure of inactivity. Channel surfing is easier than body surfing—even on a beautiful day. So if our options are open, why do we make the choices we do?
Edward Burkley et al. examined this question broadly in the aptly titled, "Lead Us Not into Temptation: The Seven Deadly Sins as a Taxonomy of Temptations" (2018). They began by recognizing that individuals routinely experience a struggle between temptations and self-control, but previous research has focused on emphasizing self-control as a “push,” rather than focusing on the tantalizing “pull” of temptation. They used the list of seven deadly sins (gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, envy, pride, and wrath) to define and identify temptations that are frequently experienced, and examined the effectiveness of self-control to resist temptation in each of these areas.
Burkley et al. recognize that not all temptations are inherently wrong. Using food cravings as an example (that we can all relate to), they recognize the difference between a kale salad and a cheeseburger, noting that unhealthy food cravings are problematic if you are watching your diet. They define temptation as implying an “incompatibility between people's desired behavior and their personal goals.”
In reviewing previous research Burkley et al. take note of the most commonly experienced temptations. Out of 15 “desire categories,” which included various beverages and foods, tobacco, leisure activities, sleep, socializing, sex, and spending money, the desires that conflicted the most with existing goals (which they note made them most consistent with “temptation”) were tobacco, media, sleep, spending, and leisure activities.
Does recognizing our areas of weakness allow us to harness impulsiveness? Research suggests the answer might be yes.
Knowledge as Willpower
We all have that friend who loves to entertain, but routinely sends her guests home at the end of the evening with all of the decadent desserts, explaining that if chocolate is anywhere in the house, she cannot resist. This recognition is an apparently smart self-awareness strategy.
For people struggling with temptation impulse control, research suggests that recognition is the first step. Martin S. Hagger et al. (2019) found that trait self-control is a consistent predictor of health-related behavior. They point out that as a practical matter, difficulties with self-control can leave people vulnerable to succumbing to temptation when presented with cues or conditions that prompt impulsive eating or drinking. They also note that such people may opt to be sedentary rather than participate in physical activity.
Hagger et al. also observe, however, that knowledge of one´s self-control deficiencies regarding health-related behavior can prompt proactive engagement in behaviors designed to minimize negative consequences. They describe such interventions as including environmental restructuring, self-monitoring, and cue monitoring.
This means that the buddy system increases our chances of actually attending the fitness center we joined, and diet accountability partners help us make healthy choices and coach us to get back in the saddle when we fall off the wagon.
Enjoy Life Responsibly
Managing impulsivity does not mean abstinence. Barring medical concerns, health regimens should emphasize planning and moderation. Diets that outlaw all of our favorite forbidden foods and require overly rigorous exercise will fail. Unless it is the first week of January, most people would never even consider such a challenging routine, much less keep up the momentum.
A healthy lifestyle includes recognition of weak spots, resolve to improve health-related routines, and a commitment to eat and drink responsibly. And remember to enjoy life.
Burkley, Edward, Melissa Burkley, Jessica Curtis, and Thomas Hatvany, "Lead Us Not into Temptation: The Seven Deadly Sins as a Taxonomy of Temptations." Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2018.
Hagger, Martin S., Daniel F. Gucciardi , Amelia S. Turrell, and Kyra Hamilton "Self‐control and Health‐related Behaviour: The Role of Implicit Self‐control, Trait Self‐control, and Lay Beliefs in Self‐control." British Journal of Health Psychology. 24, no. 4 (2019): 764-786.