Resisting Temptation

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“I can resist everything except temptation.” - Oscar Wilde

The Friday bagels have arrived and there is a battle going on in your mind; classically represented by the devil and angel on your shoulders.  One says, “What’s so bad about one bagel? The other says, “Come on, you know staying off starch is key to looking great this summer.”

But is this really a battle of good over evil?  I mean, devil voice has a valid point about living in the moment, and angel voice does have your summer’s best interests in mind. Each voice, and its varying credibility dependent on perspective, has lead  behavioral economist, Daniel Goldstein to craft a different metaphorical visual for those facing temptation.

He claims the battle is not Good vs. Evil, but actually Present Self vs. Future Self. Present Self wants more immediate satisfaction by no fault of its Carpe-diem mentality. Future Self is looking back and wanting to execute influence towards long term mindset, since its fate rests in Present Self’s hands.

Using this imagery helps us see why Future Self’s voice is distant and often weak compared to Present Self, which is directly in touch with temptation and result. As Goldstein says in his TED Talk, “Present Self tromps on Future Self’s dreams.”

So how do we strengthen the voice of, and our relationship to, Future Self?

He believes they key lies in strengthening our imaginations. Goldstein and his colleagues have developed tools to help people better visualize their Future Selves when planning for retirement. One powerful way they do this by projecting computer-aged images of subjects when helping them plan for their finances. And it works!  Subjects who had seen pictures of their older selves committed to put twice as much money in long term savings.

In fact, there’s a fitness app capitalizing on this idea, but in reverse, The “Visualize You” Smartphone App generates an image of a thinner you to help motivate dieters to remember their Future Selves.

Most of us, however, are left at the bagel box without a “Future Self” app handy. We are instead left with our cognition and its rationalizations. Unfortunately, a new study out of Northwestern University, reported on here at Science Daily, finds that relying on cognition and logic in times of temptation produces crap results.

The study author, Loran Nordgren, says, “Need or desire... corrupts the cognitive processes that would help you interrupt [impulsive] behavior. When you're craving and being tempted, your rationalization succumbs and so, in a hot state, you have the devil on both shoulders."

Oh Great.  So what do you do?

The one thing that consistently works is limiting exposure to states of being that put you in what scientists call that “hot” or agitated state. Don’t let yourself get hungry, run out of nicotine gum, or get overly stressed, etc. And, of course, try to avoid temptation- heavy circumstances. As in, if you’re quitting drinking, avoid booze soaked gatherings. 

There are some tips and tricks you can use, however, that go beyond avoidance. Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight, spoke to Cornell Tech about three strategies for better self-control.

Reward substitution - The idea is to reward the Present Self with something immediately gratifying for doing a task that is aimed at helping Future Self. Like going to see a movie if you eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables all week.

Temptation roadblocks - This might need to involve others, but Airely says one example is having a friend change your Facebook Password until you achieve a difficult short term goal like studying for finals.

Invoking a higher power - This is a hallmark of AA and religions in general, which have been working to control believers urges for thousands of years. It doesn’t have to be the God of your childhood, or God at all, just considering your higher purpose on the planet, in that moment, is scientifically proven to improve willpower.

So good luck in front of that bagel box.  May your Future Self be heard.  Or not.




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