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5 Elements of Desire Formation

How we give in to temptation?

Experiencing and dealing with desire is a central part of our daily life (e.g., food, sleep, social contact, and media use). Desire provides motivational force for pursuing our goals. Desires are directed toward specific objects (or people) with a promise of gain in pleasure (or relief from discomfort). However, there are circumstances where spontaneous desire stands in conflict with painful goals (e.g., a short-term pleasure of enjoying chocolate versus a long-term goal of weight loss). The formation of desire can be broken down into five steps, which results in behavior that people may later regret. Simply being aware of these factors can protect us from making rash decisions.

1. Automatic occurrence.

In general, desire begins in a relatively automatic manner as the brain pleasure centers evaluate external incentives against the state of mind (e.g., hungry, craving, or feeling lonely). For example, negative mood can be a cue that triggers desires to improve one’s current state. In the case of impulse buying, the consumer responds spontaneously when exposed to desirable objects without any further hesitation.

2. Situational cues.

Temptations (problematic desires) are triggered by situational cues (stimuli), by means of Pavlovian conditioning, that promise immediate satisfaction at the cost of important long-term rewards. Our preferences are sensitive to cues like the smell of cookies baking or sight of a bowl of ice cream. These cues are associated with past consumption of habit-forming goods.

3. Elaboration.

As the desire gains access to working memory, the person becomes conscious. The more people elaborate on their desires, the more likely it becomes that people will generate justifications that allow them to indulge. For example, they may say, “this is definitely going to be my last indulgence before I start my diet.” Elaboration may involve generating expectancies about the consequences of desire enactment (“A drink would make me feel relaxed, sociable or happy”).

4. Attention focus.

Biased attention (fixation) for food cues trigger food cravings. The opposite is also possible: craving for food grabs attention for food cues. Craving result in attention being drawn preferentially to the desirability of the stimulus (e.g., palatability of high-caloric foods) making it harder to resist the desire. The more attention a person allocates to a rewarding stimulus (a high-caloric food), the more likely he will be to experience a subjective feeling of craving.

5. Opportunity to act.

When you know a reward is unavailable, you stop craving and shifts your attention elsewhere. For example, when the smoker is placed in a context in which the substance is not available (during a nine-hour flight), but the craving will intensify at the airport where there is an opportunity to smoke. Thus, craving is eliminated or at least blunted when smokers believe that they will be unable to smoke in the near future.

Whether people will give in to the desire in any given time depends on two things : the strength of the desire and the ability (strength) of the self to resist the urge. The stronger desire may make people more vulnerable to its motivational power. If a desire is weak, then resisting it will be relatively easy. Sometimes it may look like people are doing an impressive job of resisting something, when really they simply aren’t tempted by it. For instance, your friend who is so good at resisting cookies is just not that into cookies. It does not count as self-control if you did not want the thing in the first place.