How an Inflated Sense of Self-control Leads to Death by Temptation


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For six months you’ve worked really hard to stick to a diet, and it’s paying off.  Not only have you lost weight, but now more than ever you’re better able to restrain your impulse to eat fattening foods. Your friends are telling you how impressed they are with your resolve, and truth be told you’re feeling pretty damn good about yourself as well.

Which is why, around month seven, you decide that your impulse control is sufficiently strengthened that avoiding being around ice cream, nachos, chicken wings, soda—and all the other things you used to eat out with your friends—is no longer necessary.  You’ve spent half a year changing the way you think about food and it worked. Maintenance won’t be difficult with a new mindset. Time to live again.

I probably don’t have to end this story for you to know how it turns out. It’s a classic tragedy with which many of us are already too familiar.  Pride comes before a fall, but even more often it’s our sense of inflated self-restraint that precedes a tumble into relapse. 

A new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated the dynamics underlying why we repeatedly convince ourselves that we’ve overcome impulsiveness and can stop avoiding our worst temptations.  This particular tendency toward self-deception is called restraint bias, and four experiments were conducted under this study to test the hypothesis that it’s rampant in our bias-prone species.

In one of the experiments, heavy smokers were asked to take a test to assess their level of impulse-control.  The test was bogus, designed only to label roughly half of the participants as having a high capacity for self-control, and half as having a low capacity.  Being told which label they earned seeded participants with a self-perception in either direction.

Participants were then asked to play a game that pitted the temptation to smoke against an opportunity to win money. The goal of the game was to watch a film called “Coffee and Cigarettes” without having a cigarette.  They could select among four levels of temptation, each with a corresponding dollar value: (1) keep a cigarette in another room: $5; (2) keep a cigarette on a nearby desk: $10; (3) hold an unlit cigarette in their hand throughout the film: $15; (4) or hold an unlit cigarette in their mouth throughout the film: $20.  Participants earned the money only if they avoided smoking the cigarette for the entire movie.

As predicted, smokers told they had high self-control exposed themselves to significantly more temptation than those told they had low self-control. On average, low self-control participants opted to watch the movie with a cigarette on the table; high self-controllers opted to watch with a cig in their hand. 

The result: the failure rate for those told they had high self-control was massively higher than for the low self-control group, to the tune of 33% vs. 11%.  Those who thought themselves most able to resist temptation had to light up three times as much as those who suspected they’d fail.

One way to view these results is as reinforcement of a very old cliché: we’re our own worst enemies. Restraint bias has a place high on the list of biases we trip on routinely, and tripping on it once is no guarantee of not doing so again, and again…and maybe again.  Dieters relapse, smokers relapse, anyone with anything approaching a compulsion or addiction relapses—usually more than once. This study suggests that part of this repetition is due to thinking we can handle more than we can.

Another takeaway is that an entire industry is based on bolstering impulse control.  Self help books and motivational speakers aplenty play on a dubious concept, that there’s a “gold ring” of restraint we all can reach—just follow ‘X’ system to get there.  But what this study suggests is that even if you think you’ve arrived “there,” you’ll eventually find out that “there” never existed. You were sold a mirage in the form of inflated self-perception of restraint.  No refunds.

Reality is, psychological bias–restraint bias included–is a lot like conflict. You can’t avoid it. You just manage it.


This post was co-posted from a longer version on Neuronarrative


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