Reducing Temptations with Distance
Research suggests that creating space can help you avoid temptations.
Posted June 8, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- People often prefer items or choices that offer short-term benefits over long-term benefits.
- Putting physical distance between oneself and tempting foods can be an effective strategy to avoid consuming those foods.
- People who are taught the distance strategy can develop healthier habits over time, research suggests.
Generally speaking, research suggests that people prefer things that offer benefits in the short-term rather than the long-term.
This pattern can be a problem when the short-term option has some negative consequences for the long-term. For example, foods high in fat and salt are often delicious, but overindulgence in these foods can lead to weight gain and health problems. Options that are desirable in the short-term, but not the long term, are temptations because they threaten to overwhelm important long-term goals.
Because of the strong draw that short-term options can have on people’s behavior, it can be hard for people to resist them. That is why knowing the right thing to do (and even committing strongly to a long-term goal) is not enough to guarantee success. For example, many people commit to a goal of healthy eating, but are unable to resist either the lure of foods high in fat and salt or eating portion sizes containing too many calories.
One general strategy for managing these temptations (which I discuss at length in my book Smart Change) is to manage the environment to make desirable behaviors easy and undesirable behaviors hard. For example, if you want to avoid eating ice cream, it helps not to keep ice cream in your freezer.
A paper in the June 2021 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by researchers Shana Cole, Janna Dominick, and Emily Balcetis explored whether creating mental distance to temptations can also help. They suggest that people who are successful at regulating their behaviors create a greater mental distance between themselves and their temptations than people who are not that successful.
In an initial study (and a replication), participants rated the strength of their goal to eat healthy food. They also responded to scenarios about their preferred distance to items. For example, they might see a picture of a conference table with donuts and snacks at one end and had to mark their preferred seat at the table. After choosing a location, participants also rated the strength of the temptation if they were at that location as well as their likelihood of giving in to the temptation.
The stronger a participant’s goal to eat healthy food, the further they placed themselves away from the temptation. This distance led to a reduced strength of temptation and a reduce estimate of the likelihood of giving in. As a control, participants also rated distance to something unrelated to food (in this case the desired distance of their home from a bookstore) and found no relationship between health goals and this rated distance.
In a second study, participants were approached by research assistants standing about 30 feet from carts in the city selling roasted nuts. Participants read about the history of nut carts. One version talked about how unhealthy the nuts are (full of salt and sugar). Another version talked about how healthy they are (with lots of protein, fiber, and Omega-3 fatty acids).
Participants completed scales measuring how good they were at controlling their own eating behavior and whether they were currently dieting. Participants also had to estimate how far away they were from the nut cart. Participants who were currently dieting, were good at controlling their own behavior, and read that nuts were unhealthy estimated the distance to the nut cart as greater than any of the other groups. Essentially, people who wanted to diet, are good at it, and were given a temptation placed that temptation mentally far away from themselves.
In a final study, participants tracked their eating for a week and rated how healthy their meals were. In the middle of the week, half the participants read about the importance of healthy eating. The other half read about the importance of healthy eating and were also taught that keeping their distance from unhealthy food is a successful strategy for eating well. Over the rest of the week, those taught the distance strategy rated themselves as eating healthier meals (compared to what they ate in the first half of the week) than those who were not taught this strategy.
This set of studies suggests that making unhealthy options harder to access is a good strategy for overcoming temptations. This work also suggests that people who are successful at controlling their behavior use distance as a strategy for avoiding tempting foods. Finally, the last study suggests that it is possible to teach people to use distance in order to help them avoid foods they don’t want to eat.
Cole, S., Dominick, J.K., & Balcetis, E. (2021). Out of reach and under control: Distance as a self-control strategy. Social and Personalty Psychology Bulletin, 47(6), 939-952.