How to Avoid Temptation

An article1 in Scientific American Mind presents a theory regarding how temptation works. It states that there are two different information processing systems in the brain: impulses that lead to immediate gratification and reason, that is aimed at our well-being and long-term objectives. This is very similar to the two system view of cognition (see the blog post, “Two System View of Cognition”). System 1 is named Intuition. It is very fast , employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. For the most part System 1 works outside conscious awareness. System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is close to what we commonly regard as conscious thinking. One can think of this two two process views as being identical but working in different domains.

Unfortunately, impulses that lead to immediate gratification are System 1 processes that operate very quickly and can operate outside your conscious awareness. So you might buy a candy bar without thinking about it. No effort is involved in immediately yielding to temptation. Resisting temptation, however, is a System 2 process, so it is effortful and depletes cognitive resources. This might seem like an unfair match, and that is why avoiding temptation can be so difficult. You need to understand how temptation works and that it takes cognitive resources to avoid temptation. When you are under stress, say studying for an exam, your cognitive resources are depleted and you can more readily yield to temptation.

Since it does require mental effort to avoid temptation, and since mental resources are depleted when you try to avoid temptation, you need to marshal your mental resources carefully. It is a bad idea to try to give up more than one bad habit at a time, as it takes mental resources to give up this habit . Try to avoid stressful situations and undertake activities that restore mental resources, such as taking a walk in nature or meditation (see the blog posts “Restoring Attentional Resources,” “More on Restoring Attentional Resources,” “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention,” and “The Relaxation Response”).

Another article2 in the same issue of Scientific American Mind provides a curious technique to help you when you are dieting, or when you simply don’t want to gain wait. The technique is to imagine the act of eating what you want to eat. This might seem counter intuitive, but for it to be successful you must vividly imagine eating what you want to eat. The reason this does work is that imagining an experience evokes the same physiological responses as the real experience. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University had study participants think about eating a specific food, either M&Ms or cubes of cheese, one morsel at a time. A control group imagined putting thirty quarters into a laundry machine. Those who imagined eating 30 M&Ms ate half as many candies as those who pictured putting thirty quarters into a laundry machine. The thought was specific to the type of food that was imagined, with those thinking about eating cheese consuming about half the amount of cheese as those who thought about eating M&Ms.

1Hofmann, W. & Friese, M. (2011) Control Yourself. Scientific American Mind, May/June, 43-47.

2Solis, M. A Thinking Persons Diet, p.11 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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