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Study Shows that People Overestimate Their Capacity to Resist Temptation

posted 11:33 PM EST, Sun August 09, 2009
Study Shows that People Overestimate Their Capacity to Resist Temptation © Photo Credit: NUCO

Research shows that we overestimate our powers of self control and so we unconcernedly expose ourselves to temptation – increasing our probability of succumbing to it.

Judge not lest ye be judged…that’s what senior lecturer at the Kellogg School, Loran Nordgren advises after running a study that examined how much control we have over our impulses.

We don’t have as much as we think we do – and those of us that think ourselves very self controlled, actually place ourselves at greater risk of an impulsive bad decision.

Nordgren led a research team that investigated whether beliefs about willpower influenced the ability to control impulses. Specifically, do people who believe themselves to have high levels of self control actually end up controlling their impulses any better?

Nordgren built the study on the back of previous research that has shown that people in a cold or non impulsive state (a cold state for a measure of hunger impulse control could be someone who had just finished eating until sated) underestimate how much influence a hot state (a hungry state, for example) has on the ability to control impulses. With this foreknowledge, Nordgren’s team ran tests that evaluated:

  1. Whether people who believe they have a high capacity for self control will expose themselves to greater temptation and thus eventually succumb to greater impulsive behaviors
  1. Whether people already in a “hot” state of mind will better judge their ability to resist temptation
  1. Whether people in a “cold” state will be less able to accurately judge their ability to resist temptation

The research team ran tests using addiction (cigarette smoking) and food temptation as measures.

They found that people who predicted a high level of self control did in fact place themselves in situations of greater temptation (such as choosing to view a movie about smoking) and were then very much more likely to smoke a cigarette than people who predicted lower self control and who exposed themselves to less temptation.

In another experiment, people in a “cold” state, who had eaten until full, chose a greater selection of tasty snacks than did a hungry group (a hot group) counseled to avoid temptation and ultimately, the “cold” group consumed more of the snacks.

Nordgren summarizes the research results by saying, "People are not good at anticipating the power of their urges. The key is simply to avoid any situations where vices and other weaknesses thrive and, most importantly, for individuals to keep a humble view of their willpower."

He says that in any system that relies on people to show self restraint, people will overestimate their ability to control themselves, and fall prey to temptation - saying, “We expose ourselves to more temptation than is wise, and subsequently we have millions of people suffering with obesity, addictions and other unhealthy lifestyles."

The full study results can be found in the coming print edition of Psychological Science.

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