Does Anticipating Temptation Help You Resist Temptation?

Sometimes, thinking about ethical temptations in advance helps.

Posted Aug 27, 2015

In Smart Change, I talk about the importance of planning for temptations.  The idea is that temptations are hard to deal with in the moment, because they suggest something that would feel good to do right now.  Those temptations can capture your motivational system and drive you to do something that is not in your long-term best interests.  If you prepare for those temptations, though, you may be better able to resist them.

In the book, I focused primarily on temptations relating to bad habits you are trying to overcome.  What about ethical temptations like the desire to lie or cheat?  Do they also benefit from thinking about them in advance?

This question was explored by Oliver Sheldon and Ayelet Fishbach in a paper published in the July, 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

They suggest that thinking about temptations might prepare people to resist future ethical temptations, but only when people view the current decision as reflecting something about who they are as a person rather than just a decision in the moment.  That is, when people are faced with ethical temptations, there is a benefit in the short-term to doing the unethical thing.  But most people don’t want to think of themselves as unethical people.  So, if they are forced to contemplate that an unethical action might make them an unethical person, then thinking about temptations will reduce unethical behavior in the long run.

In one laboratory study, participants were given a chance to cheat.  They performed eight experimental tasks in which they were asked to flip a coin labeled “short” on one side and “long” on the other.  If the coin came up “short” they were allowed to read a short passage and proofread it.  If the coin came up “long” they had to read a long passage and proofread it.  They were told that the coin flips were necessary to randomly assign passages to participants.  Of course, nobody was monitoring people’s performance, so they could ultimately cheat by saying the coin came up “short” more often than it did.

Prior to this task, participants either wrote about a previous temptation they had to take a short cut or they wrote a control passage about having a backup plan in case of a failure.  They also read an article about personality.  One group read an article suggesting that personality is fairly stable over time. The other group read an article suggesting that personality varies quite a bit over time.  These articles were designed to manipulate how strongly connected people felt to their future selves.

The participants who thought about previous temptations and read about stability in personality (so that they would feel connected to themselves) tended not to cheat.  Specifically, on average they reported that their coin came up “short” about 4 times out of 8 flips.  The other three groups reported that (on average) their coin came up “short” on slightly more than 5 out of 8 flips which is unlikely for a fair coin. 

Another study manipulated temptation and connectedness in a slightly different way.  In this study, the temptation group wrote about a time that they made a choice based mostly for pleasure rather than for other reasons.  The control group wrote about backup plans.  In this study, participants read about six work-related dilemmas (like working slowly to avoid getting more work to do or calling in sick in order to get a day off).  One group did each dilemma one at a time.  Another group was shown all six dilemmas at once before responding to them.  The idea is that when you see all six dilemmas, you are forced to think broadly about whether you want to act ethically, but when you see them one at a time, you can treat them as independent.

In this study, participants made the fewest unethical choices when they thought about choices made for pleasure and saw all six dilemmas at the same time.  The other groups were more likely to make unethical choices.

The paper reports a few other studies that replicate these effects.

This work suggests that in ethical situations, it can also be useful to contemplate temptations before entering a situation in which you might be able to act unethically.  In the ethical case, though, thinking about prior temptations helps primarily when people think of their decisions as reflecting who they are as a person rather than just as an isolated decision.  This differs a bit from other temptations (like the ones I discuss in Smart Change), where it is also useful to have a specific plan to help handle those temptations in the future.  Future work should also explore the benefits of having prior plans for ethical dilemmas.

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