A girl resisting a temptation by Zuzanna Jura

We all know desires. They have different faces.

What happens when we give in to temptations — and the most common ways to resist them.

We all wish to accomplish different things in life. And we all have problems that make it difficult for us. They have many faces, they have many names: distractions, desires, temptations, procrastination and “if thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires” (Epicurus).

Wilhelm Hofmann (Hofmann et al, 2012) makes a distinction between desires, which just distract us from our current task, and temptations that are directly counterproductive to our goals. Desires and temptations are both affectionately charged motivations towards a certain object, person or activity that is associated with pleasure or relief from displeasure. We shall return to this characteristic later on, as it will be the basis for understanding the mechanism at play.

While temptations have an object either real or imagined, pulling us away from our productive process, procrastination consists in postponing work and attending to the next activity in line. When procrastinating, a temptation becomes a promise of instant gratification through, for example, taking a break. In this such case, it is supported by a false hope that work can be postponed without any cost.

In order to deal with temptations we need to exert some kind of energy. That energy also appears under many names: self-regulation, willpower, mental energy or self-control. It is the executive function that “I” (my ego) need to in order to accomplish what I intended to. It is responsible for behaving in line with social norms, for making choices and for delaying gratifications. That means it also empowers us to refrain from giving in to temptations when there is a long-term goal we wish to reach.

Whenever a person feels tempted and forms an intention to keep a problematic desire in check, she exerts self-control. “This is the classical test of willpower, ranging from the biblical temptation of Adam and Eve with the forbidden fruit in paradise, to the temptation of schoolchildren with tasty marshmallows in Walter’s Mischel classical studies on delay of gratification” (Hofmann and Kotabe, 2012).

One important part of human personality is a limited resource of energy that is used for all acts of volition. This energy is spent on all the tasks that are not performed in an automatic fashion. Each such task depletes the energy reserve, so that less is left for what comes next.

Baumeister and colleagues (1998) carried out four various studies confirming that self-control is a finite resource that gets depleted over time and found that initial act of self-control impaired subsequent self-control, that making a responsible decision impaired subsequent self-control, that self-control lowered performance on a task that required self-control, and that an initial act of self-control led to increased passivity. These experiments are a foundation on which our sometimes inconsistent activities can be better understood:

“People who use their willpower seem to run out of it. Smokers who go without a cigarette for twenty-four hours are more likely to binge on ice cream. Drinkers who resist their favorite cocktail become physically weaker on a test of endurance. Perhaps most disturbingly, people who are on a diet are more likely to cheat on their spouse. It’s as if there’s only so much willpower to go around. Once exhausted, you are left defenseless against temptation — or at least disadvantaged” (McGonigal, 2011)

Probably the best known experiment conducted by Baumeister and colleagues (1998) is the “radish –cookies experiment.” Members of one group needed to resist the impulse to help themselves to chocolate cookies that not only looked delicious, but smelled that way too. However, they could eat as many radishes as they wanted. These people were then asked to try their hand with difficult puzzles. As compared with a group who was free to eat cookies, they gave up much faster.

The conclusion of the experimenters was: it takes self-control to resist temptations and it takes self-control to make oneself to endure difficult task.

The single best physiological measurement of our ability to exert self-control- or, to make use of willpower — is something called Heart Rate Variability. HRV is a measure indicating the variation in your heartbeats within a specific timeframe. When people successfully exert self-control, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to mitigate stress and control impulsive action. Heart rate goes down, but variability goes up.

When this happens, it contributes to a sense of focus and calm.

“Heart rate variability is such a good index of willpower that you can use it to predict who will resist temptation, and who will give in. For example, recovering alcoholics whose heart rate variability goes up when they see a drink are more likely to stay sober. Recovering alcoholics who show the opposite response — their heart rate variability drops when they see a drink — have a greater risk of relapse. (…) These findings have led psychologists to call heart rate variability the body’s “reserve” of willpower” (McGonigal, 2011)

In summary, there is a limited pool of energy available to us at any given moment. It also makes sense to conserve it, as running out of this fuel usually increases probability of making life mistakes of various caliber. Fighting temptations is one of the activities that burns this fuel a lot. In fact we are spending close to 25% of our awake time fighting temptations with success ratio 50% (Baumeister, 2011). Next chapter, we will have a closer look.

People follow outlined plans hoping to achieve set goals. When we recognize a need and begin a process to satisfy it, we set in motion a force in our psychological field. This, in turn, produces a kind of tension. Goal achievement and need satisfaction usually release the tension and allow an individual to reestablish a state of equilibrium (Lewin, 1951).

There will be, however, tensions of a different character coming into existence — and some of them will be competing with the prime goal. These tensions (or: temptations) cease their “activity” if enacted, by making us content in the present moment. At the same time, however, they sabotage our long term goal.

In the moment of giving in to the temptation, we don’t experience strong negative emotions. This is in large due to the working of our defense mechanisms. That’s because these mechanisms are designed to defend one thing in particular: our positive feeling about ourselves. However, in the long run, a mixture of different emotions arrive — including guilt (Pychyl, 2013).

“The most important thing to understand is that we give in to feel good. That is, we want to feel good now and we will do whatever it takes for immediate mood repair. (…) When we give in to feel good, we give in to impulsive urges. These urges can take many forms. We might gamble, shop, or eat more than we need, ingest mood altering substances, or procrastinate — all in an effort to avoid negative emotions. (…) When facing a task we intend to do but do not want to, we feel a number of possible negative emotions. We may feel frustrated, angry, bored, resentful, depressed, anxious or guilty” (Pychyl, 2013).

On top of the “escape the discomfort” reward, we also enjoy imagining ourselves achieving the long-term goal in the future. And, not to forget, there is also feeling good resulting from doing something pleasant at this very moment — like shopping, using a phone instead of writing, or eating more of the food we had decided to eliminate from our diet.

It is “pleasure at this very moment” that makes it so tempting to postpone whatever it is that we were planning to torture ourselves with. Logic working here is very simple — humans will choose either of two options: get something available right here and right now but of little value or delay gratification and work towards a goal in sometimes quite distant future (Motivation = Expectancy x Value).

Mischel and Metcalfe (1999) suggest that there are two “systems” at play here, interacting with each other. The cool, cognitive system is in charge of planning and monitoring, while the hot, emotional one is responsible for fast reactions to stimuli. The issue is that these stimuli may be either threatening or fear provoking (thereby increasing our chances of survival), as well as appetitive and attractive (Metcalfe & Jacobs, 1998). It is the latter kind of stimuli that makes our lives not fully successful when it comes to respecting deadlines, diet plans, New Year’s resolutions and all the other goals that we decide to pursue.

“The problem of stimulus control is central to human self-regulation, so understanding the system that drives this behavior and its interactions with modulating systems is crucial. The hot and cool systems work in concert to produce experiences that are both cognitive and emotional”. (Mischel& Metcalfe, 1999)

Some neuroscientists go as far as to say that we have one brain but two minds — or even, two people living inside our mind. There’s the version of ourselves that acts on impulses and seeks immediate gratification — as well as the one that controls our impulses and delays gratification to protect our long-term goals (Kahneman, 2013).

Jonahtan Haidt translated Mischel’s hot and cool system duality into the “elephant and rider” analogy in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt chose elephant instead of the Freud’s horse as the much larger animal underlines the notion of difficulty in exercising control functions. One of the rider’s main functions is to do the planning, to imagine alternatives that are not visually present, to weigh long-term benefits against present pleasures. Unfortunately, the controlled system — the rider — has relatively little power to influence behavior, as it evolved quite recently thanks to language and reasoning.

On the other hand, the automatic system — the elephant — was shaped throughout a much longer period of time. It is, therefore, much better equipped: it includes parts of the brain that are responsible for the flight-or-fight system, but also those that make us feel pleasure and pain. Hot system as described in this article seems to bear only negative characteristics however it can be used to overcome our biggest obstacle to change. When the hot system kicks in, we are sometimes quite helpless.

“It starts with a flash of excitement. Your brain buzzes, and your heart pounds in your chest. It’s like your whole body is saying Yes. Then the anxiety hits. Your lungs tighten and your muscles tense. You start to feel light — headed and a little nauseous. You are almost trembling, you want this so much. But you can’t. But you want. But you can’t! You know what you need to do, but you aren’t sure you can handle this feeling without falling apart or giving in.” (Mcgonigal, 2011)

In Mischel and Metcalfe (1999) terminology, the above described scene is the default “Yielding to Temptation” scenario when the person does not activate his or her control strategies. The object of desire is classified bythe brain as a highly salient hot stimulus that evokes an immediate and direct response. Since self-control is in the latent mode, there is no activity in the cool system.

In such scenario, an emotion is generated almost automatically in the hot system. It is the kind of emotion that “represents an amplified and energized thought pattern, and because of its often overpowering energetic charge, it is not easy initially to stay present enough to be able to watch it. It wants to take you over, and it usually succeeds”. (Tolle, 1997)

It is worth mentioning that it is not only in the physical world that the hot system spots various temptations. Another possibility is for a person to activate particular hot feelings and reactions by evoking their corresponding cool nodes in thinking and fantasy. The thinking would have to be in a particular way that could be summarized as giving it a “hot framing” (Mischel& Metcalfe, 1999), thereby adding the appetitive, emotional characteristics. When a desire manifests, people will generally strive for their enactment — unless the desire constitutes a threat to longer-term goals. In that case, as mentioned in the introduction we are facing a temptation.

“Desire strength is the momentary pleasure of cheesecake molecules hitting your palate. Part of you knows that you have bigger goals. Goals like health, happiness, and fitting into your pants tomorrow. This part of you recognizes that the cheesecake threatens your long-term goals. And so it will do whatever it can to deal with this threat. This is your willpower instinct.” (McGonigal, 2011)

It also needs to be noted however that there is a fresh view on the whole topic. A meta-analysis by De Ridder and colleagues (De Ridder, Lensvelt-Mulders, Finkenauer, Stok, &Baumeister, in press) concluded that trait self-control may operate more by way of establishing effective habits and routines than by resisting single temptations. In other words, people with good self-control may avoid temptations rather than resisting them.

In summary, fighting temptations, activity that burns much part of our willpower energy, seems to be quite challenging for a number of reasons. We use slow, cognitive, cool system to match against fast, emotional, hot system, where temptations come into being. We give up long term, valuable goals as we give in to feel good at this very moment. Maybe the value of re-watching another season is not that great but the probability of achieving that goal is 99,99 — I am holding the remote. Let us have a look now at some of the proven methods to fight temptations.

Mischel and Metcalfe (1999) in their seminal article, Mischel and Metcalfe (1999) outline three types of self-control strategies that can be used in an attempt to neutralize the arising temptation.

The first control strategy aims at decreasing hot spot activation by obscuring or ignoring the stimulus. They follow the principle “out sight out of mind,” which can be put in life by removing sweets, alcohol or any other objects of desire. In case of encountering temptations in the “uncontrolled territory,” one can move away physically or pretend that the given object is not there at all.

The second strategy consists in locating another, more neutral distraction in the person’s environment or by internally generating it in the mind. The prediction (and hope) here is that concurrent exposure to a neutral stimuli will activate different parts of the network and, as a result, decrease activation of the hot system caused by the object of desire.

Examples for this strategy include showing a toy to a child who just saw an ice-cream stand or presenting a new distractor to an alcohol addict who just heard that there is a free whisky tasting around the corner. Of course, the efficacy of the new distractor depends on how interesting and involving it is. Alternatively to a physical distractor, a person could turn her attention to internal thought processing, reviving fantasy of their next holiday.

The third strategy involves reframing the meaning of the object of desire. In this option, it is advised to concentrate on the cool aspects of the object of desire like its shape, size, and nutritional value if it is food J — all of that in hope that activation of the hot system would be delayed or, in an ideal scenario, activation would be executed only in the cool system.

All the above-mentioned strategies can be used in the heat of the battle with temptations. On occasion, however, it would make sense to “pre-program” them in advance, thus making them less effortful over time. Especially in situations when the stress level is high, quick responding that have been preconditioned is essential (Mischel& Metcalfe, 1999).

“The success of certain strategies such as implementations intentions seems to lie precisely in intentionally programming the mind so as to automatically trigger a favorable response (e.g. say “no, thanks”) when a critical cue (e.g. somebody offering sweets) is encountered” (Hofmann &Kotabe, 2012).

What bridges the notion of willpower with all the situations when we give in to temptation is the explanation that we need to use this special, limited pool of energy to act when intended. When we don’t, there is a significant risk that we will choose the default path and yield to temptation — we give in to feel good. Since self-control working from slow, cognitive cool system needs to override fast, emotional, hot system this may prove difficult at times,

If exerting self-control uses a scarce and precious resource we could possibly learn early how to conserve that resource by learning about what really happens and by choosing the strategies that best work for us when facing temptations. I have covered some of the classic methods and here you can read Marta’s piece on a slightly different one. And since the Game of Thrones has ended, there is nothing left as to bring back some of the finest quotes. Speaks Lord Varys:

“When I see what desire does to people — what it’s done to this country — I am very glad to have no part in it. Besides, the absence of desires leaves one free to pursue…other things”.

I wish myself and all of you good luck in pursuing “other things”.

I coach on Coach.me and via zoom on www.wojciechjura.com. I cover Positive Productivity — my clients get more productive with respect to mindful well-being.

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