Simply Irresistible

Ancient Greek wanderers knew something modern mortgage agents and serial snackers don't: It's easy to overestimate your willpower to resist.

A governor leaves the country for a sexual liaison on another continent, saying he's going on a hike, and ignores repeated calls from his chief of staff over the course of several days. It's easy to roll your eyes and ask the heavens, "How did he think he could get away with that?"

It turns out the answer is not in the stars, but, yes, Brutus, in ourselves. Mortals not only overestimate our ability to resist temptation, we also tend to miscalculate the amount of temptation we can handle.

Homer was onto it: Odysseus put wax in his shipmate's ears and had himself tied to the ship's mast before being exposed to the Sirens' song.

But humans today may need a sociological study to understand that our abilities to control impulses are not what we think they are and can lead to poor decision-making and a greater likelihood of indulging in impulsive or addictive behavior.

Loran Nordgren, assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School, recently tackled this issue with two other researchers, Joop van der Pligt and Frank van Harreveld, both of the University of Amsterdam.

Their study, "The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of Self-Restraint Promotes Impulsive Behavior," to be published in the journal Psychological Science, shows a "restraint bias" that causes people to miscalculate the amount of temptation they can handle.
More than that, there's a downward spiral working: Individuals who believe they have a high capacity for impulse control will expose themselves to greater levels of temptation and ultimately exhibit more impulsive behavior. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris.

Lead author Nordgren suggests people should "keep a humble view of their willpower," given that we are not particularly good at anticipating the power of our urges. "Those who are the most confident about their self-control are the most likely to give into temptation," he said. "The key is simply to avoid any situations where vices and other weaknesses thrive."

The researchers drew on previous studies that have shown people often have difficulty understanding the power of impulsive states, what has been termed the "empathy gap": that individuals in a "cold" state (not experiencing hunger, anger, sexual arousal, etc.) are likely to underestimate how a "hot," impulsive state will influence their behavior.

In four experiments the researchers exposed study participants to fatigue, hunger and smoking temptations. In the hunger experiment, satiated and hungry participants were asked to rank seven snacks and select a snack that they could eat whenever they chose, or return with it one week later. If they returned with the snack, they would be paid four Euros and be allowed to keep the treat.

Results showed satiated subjects believed they had more control over their impulses and often chose a more tempting treat — a favorite or second-favorite snack. This group was least likely to return the snacks. About half the participants returned the snack, but in general those returning had chosen a less tempting snack.

"A system which assumes people will control themselves is going to fall prey to this restraint bias," Nordgren said. "We expose ourselves to more temptation than is wise, and subsequently we have millions of people suffering with obesity, addictions and other unhealthy lifestyles."

Nordgren noted the gap between willpower and understanding of personal foibles is something that relates to more than food and tobacco cravings.

"The recent lending crisis provides an example of how restraint bias plays out in the business world," he said. "There was quite a lot of temptation to cut corners and act shortsightedly and there weren't a lot of guidelines and restraints on people's behavior."

One thing the study might suggest is it's never too late to take a refresher course in the Classics.

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