Friday, 15 January 2016

We are most vulnerable to temptation when it feels like we're in the middle of something

When do we give into temptation? Researchers Maferima Touré-Tillery and Ayelet Fishbach have previously shown that we’re more willing to break social standards, such as by cheating or breaking religious observance, when the opportunity is in the middle rather than the start or end of a sequence. For example, participants were more likely to report forgetting to light a Menorah candle on the fourth or fifth day of Hanukah, rather than the first or last. Now their new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests the same applies to purely personal temptations like frittering away cash on luxuries or eating unhealthily: our self-control is weakest "in the middle".

In one of their experiments, Touré-Tillery and Fischach put out snacks in a hallway – one tray of healthy raisin boxes and one tray of Kit Kat bars – for MBA students to enjoy as they left class at midday. A sign encouraged them to “Grab a snack”, but began with one of three taglines: “Start your afternoon!”, “End your morning!”, or “Keep your day going!”, which suggested the choice was being taken in the middle of things. In the last case, most participants decided to splurge – only 22 per cent of them chose raisins, vs. 40 per cent and 45 per cent for the start and end messages, respectively.

Another study produced a similar pattern in hypothetical circumstances: participants were asked to imagine they’d been on a caffeine detox for the past few days, but today had impulsively pushed aside the herbal teas for a nice strong coffee. When that temptation coffee involved checking the second or the last box of the café’s loyalty card – giving the participants the sense they were at the start or end of a pattern of behaviour – they felt more disappointed in themselves than when the card was half-full.

The researchers’ previous paper on social standards had a straightforward explanation: people have a sense that they’re less likely to be caught rule-breaking in the middle of things, rather than right at the beginning or end. But what purpose is sneakiness when you’re only cheating yourself?

Touré-Tillery and Fischach suggest that we consider the start and end of sequences to be “diagnostic positions” – this is the reason we talk about the importance of first impressions and ending on a good note – meaning the way you behave at these points reveals your true priorities. Only a poor team player would cut corners on their very first task, or when they’re almost done; by the same token, opting for sugary foods right from the off (or at the end) suggests a lack of concern for nutrition. If good nutrition is core to our self-concept, this poses a problem, leading us to be especially vigilant when decisions come up at those diagnostic positions. Conversely, it’s easier to excuse ourselves when we make a slip up in the middle.

Further research bore this out. For this study, student participants rated the appeal of healthy and unhealthy menu items, such as garden salads and fried chicken wings, where the bottom of the menu framed the current day of the week, a Tuesday, as either the start of the restaurant’s 7-day sequence of changing menus (Tuesday -> Wednesday -> Thursday … etc), the middle of the sequence, or the end. Participants were much less interested in unhealthy foods when Tuesday was framed as a start or end of a sequence – but this effect was true only if healthy eating was generally important to them. When they rated nutrition unimportant to their self-concept, it didn’t matter how the choice was framed.

A similar pattern was found in another study that involved paying for non-essential items (jackets or TVs): in this case, participants were willing to pay more when the brochure was framed as being for "middle of the year" shopping than the start or end of a quarter. Again, the effect only held for participants who cared about being thrifty.

This research could have implications for public health campaigns: for example, NHS posters encouraging people to stick to their health goals might be best timed in the middle of the year, when people are likely to be most prone to temptation, and with the goal decisions framed differently – "as the summer ends ...". It also makes me think of how we already use the turn of the year or the last days of summer break to think about and commit to virtuous activities, which become harder to hang onto as we get into the middle of things.

This research also points to possible strategies for resisting temptation when we’re “in the middle”, echoes of which can be seen in some well-known productivity systems (such as implementations of Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity chain) where today’s achievement is presented as a the culmination of a series of successes. Even more powerful is the refrain heard from the lips of many abstaining alcoholics and ex-smokers: “today is the first day of the rest of my life.”


Touré-Tillery M, & Fishbach A (2015). It was(n't) me: Exercising restraint when choices appear self-diagnostic. Journal of personality and social psychology, 109 (6), 1117-31 PMID: 26414839

--further reading--
The Digest Guide to Willpower
The first detailed study of daily temptation and resistance

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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