How not to Be Pavlov's Dog

Individual differences in resisting temptation

Posted Oct 24, 2013

Pavlov's experimental appartus diagrammed
“I couldn’t help it. I can resist everything except temptation” (Oscar Wilde).

“Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained” (William Blake).

What do we know about individual differences in resisting temptation?

The quotes above were strategically placed at the beginning and the end of a new paper in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. In this paper, Benjamin Saunders and Terry Robinson (Psychology, University of Michigan) review what we know about why some people succumb to tempting foods or drugs, while others do not.

Saunders and Robinson focus specifically on something everyone learned in first-year psychology, the notion of Pavlovian conditioned responses. You remember some version of a story about dogs salivating to bells that were paired with food presentation over a few days. The unconditioned salivation became cued by the bell (conditioned stimulus) which became the conditioned response (CR) or conditional reflex.

What you may not have learned is that these conditioned stimuli (CS) do more than elicit the CR (bells do more than elicit salivation). These stimuli take on incentive or motivational properties also known as incentive salience. They acquire the ability to activate many complex emotional and motivational states in us. A strong CS is attention grabbing. We want it! They act as rewards in themselves.

Of course, what we want at any time is also affected by our overall state at the present time. Had we been conditioned to salivate for food for a bell ourselves, we may be less motivated to seek or eat food if we’re stuffed from a previous meal. However, if we’re hungry, the motivational strength of that CS will be even stronger than usual. The power and effects of a stimulus depends on the individual too, and individuals vary.

This is an interesting paper that reviews a variety of non-human and human studies to individual variation in responsivity to potential rewards with a particular emphasis on drugs and addiction. The complete reference is below in case you want to delve into the neuroscience of classical conditioning. For now, I want to focus on some of their general conclusions about individual differences.

First, they note from the outset that “we are just beginning to understand the factors underlying individual differences in the extent to which reward cues acquire powerful motivational properties, and therefore, the ability to act as incentive stimuli” (p. 1). In other words, there are many things yet to understand about this complex system.

Second, despite the inherent complexity and early state of knowledge claims, it is clear that some of us (and a variety of other animals) are more “cue reactive.” That is, certain reward cues, those CSs I noted above, are more likely to attract us and motivate us to act to get the potential rewards that they signal.

Third, those of us for whom these Pavlovian reward cues are powerful incentives may be at higher risk for various impulse-control disorders. The authors list two such disorders, binge eating and addiction. Of course, I would suggest that procrastination is also a greater risk for those of us for whom reward cues hold special power.

Finally, although this research is in its early days (as noted), the authors conclude that “preliminary evidence suggests that manipulating attentional bias to drug cues via attentional control therapies may be an effective method for reducing some of the behavioral control drug cues have over addicts.”


Stated another way, training ourselves to explicitly avoid paying attention to cues for reward is a potential route to regaining self control. We may even want to think of using “reappraisal” strategies to reinterpret the meaning of a cue thus making it less motivationally salient. How generalizable these strategies may be for addicts remains to be seen, however I think they will go a long way to helping reduce the maladaptive short-term reward seeking in procrastination.

While our smart phones may be a powerful CS that motivates us to seek social contacts, we can learn to recognize how disruptive, distracting and unnecessary this behavior is at times. We can learn to stay on task, not seeking the cued social rewards of Web 2.0 apps, if we can recognize that our behavior is less about making social contact and more about being controlled by powerful conditioned stimuli.

Years ago, I made friends chuckle when they got my message machine instead of me when they called (at a time when even this answering machine technology was relatively new). The message went something like: “Hello, I'm not available to take your call. Did you know that as a student, I learned that Pavlov made dogs salivate to the sound of a bell? That’s nothing, I’ve learned that I can make people leave messages to the sound of tone. Watch this!” And, of course, then the beep would sound. Ok, maybe it was just funny for me then, but you get my point.

The point is that we have many conditional reflexes as Pavlov noted back in the 1920s, and many of these are undesirable, even maladaptive behaviors. I think if we can see some of our behaviors for what they are, we might put the energy into cognitive control strategies to help reduce the motivational power that these cues have over us. We know from experience that these cues, particularly for some of us, are difficult to suppress, so being strategic in reducing their salience, perhaps even extinguishing them as conditioned stimuli altogether, may be our best route to less compulsive behavior and more autonomous agency as we may desire.

Saunders, B.T., & Robinson, T.E. (2013). Individual variation in resisting temptation: Implications for addiction. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

Blogger's Note: Back in the 1970's, I was a student of Dr. Herbert Jenkins at McMaster University. It was nice to see his work cited in this paper, and it brought back many memories of my studies of animal conditioning and learning.