Not Exactly Rocket Science

Will you have that extra chocolate bar when you’re worried about your weight? Will you spend that extra hour on the internet when you have other things to do? Will you have that extra drink with an attractive colleague when your partner is waiting at home? Our lives are full of temptations and some of us are better at resisting them than others. But unexpectedly, the very people who think they are most restrained are also most likely to be impulsive. Their inflated belief in their own self-control leads them to overexpose themselves to temptation.

i-9a31f4381f9e76544ef753bde3043620-Brownies.jpgIn a series of four experiments, Loran Nordgren from Northwestern University showed that people suffer from a “restraint bias”, where they overestimate their ability to control their own impulses. Those who fall prey to this fallacy most strongly are more likely to dive into tempting situations. Smokers, for example, who are trying to quit, are more likely to put themselves in situations if they think they’re invulnerable to temptation. As a result, they’re more likely to relapse.

The restraint bias stems from the fact that we’re generally bad at predicting the future and how we’d feel in circumstances that are different to our current ones. When we’re full, we underestimate the powerful pangs of hunger. When we’re  cold, we can’t imagine what it’s really like to be sweltering. Addicts underestimate the pull of their drug-of choice when they try to quit.

Nordgren showed this in a previous experiment, where he asked people to remember how much dunking their hand in an icy bucket would affect their performance in a memory test. He found that people underestimated the memory-killing power of the ice, unless they were actually doing it at the time.

This time, he wanted to see how this restraint bias actually affects our behaviour. He started by asking 72 students to memorise strings of numbers for either an easy 2 minutes or a strenuous, tiring 20 minutes. As expected, those who did the longer task felt more tired than those who did the shorter one. They also felt that they had less control over their mental fatigue and they were less likely to cram for their final exams, leaving significantly less of their studying until the last week.  This confirms that, like the case of the icy bucket, students overestimate their ability to fight off tiredness unless they’re actually experiencing it, and this affects how they plan their studying.

In another study, Nordgren asked 79 people to rank seven snacks in order of preference, either as they entered or left a cafeteria. He also asked them to pick one of the snacks and said that they would win it, and four euros, if they returned it uneaten a week later (the snacks were tagged to avoid cheats).

He found that people leaving the cafeteria were not only less hungry than those entering it, they also felt more strongly about their ability to shrug off an impulsive craving for snacks. That came through in their choices – the full volunteers generally chose one of their two favourite snacks, while the hungry ones chose their second- or third-favourite. On an individual basis, people who thought more of their impulse control were more likely to choose the more tempting snack. They were also less likely to actually return with the snack.

i-7ac8759a0cd09be89a10008b1fb1a227-cigarettes.jpgFor his final studies, Nordgren wanted to actually manipulate his volunteers’ belief in their resistance to temptation. He gave 53 smokers a test that would tell them if they had a low or high capacity for controlling their impulses. The test, however, was a sham and it’s decrees were random. Nonetheless, those who were told they had lots of control were more likely to believe it than those who were assigned to the low-control group.

After being manipulated, the volunteers played a self-control game where could win money by watching a film Coffee and Cigarettes without lighting up. They could choose their difficulty setting – they could either watch the film with a cigarette in another room, on their desk, in their hand, or in their mouth (unlit, of course). The harder the challenge, the greater the potential prize.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, smokers who were told they had more control exposed themselves to the more tempting scenarios (they typically opted for the cigarette in hand, while the other preferred it on the table). However, their self-beliefs didn’t pan out – they were three times more likely to actually smoke the cigarettes than their peers, despite being allegedly less impulsive.

This fits with other studies which have found that smokers underestimate the cravings they’ll face when they try to quit. And after cravings cease, self-delusion becomes even greater. Nordgren  interviewed 55 people who had quit smoking for three weeks and found that those who were most confident about their impulse-control were more likely to put themselves in tempting situations. They were less likely to ask people to not smoke around them, and more likely to hang around other smokers, keep cigarettes around them and think that they could have an occasional cigarette without truly relapsing. And the price of this confidence? They were more likely to relapse after four months.

Together, Nordgren’s four studies beautifully demonstrate the power of the restraint bias in real-life settings. It’s a phenomenon that has powerful consequences, especially when it affects behaviours like smoking or dietary choices that could have significant effects on people’s health. It also applies to several situations where temptation rears its head. Should a married person knowingly go for dinner with an attractive ex, on the assumption that they’ll resist their attraction? Should a busy professional buy a time-sucking computer game based on their confidence that they’ll manage their time effectively?

The restraint bias could also help to explain why people willingly take up activities they already know to be addictive – they simply believe that they’re strong enough to resist the addiction. As a powerful example of this, one study showed that heroin users are less willing to pay for the substitute buprenorphine if they weren’t currently experiencing cravings. If experienced users underestimate their urges, imagine how monumentally more difficult it would be for a naive person to do so.

This study, like many others I’ve reported on, speaks to the massive importance of self-awareness. Unrealistic perceptions of ourselves can wreak havoc with our decision making. Overinflated views of ourselves give us further to fall when our status is challenged. If we think we’re more controlled than we are, we’re more likely to lose control. If we say unrealistically positive things about ourselves, we could actually damage our self-esteem.

It’s no coincidence that many addiction programs encourage people to have a more realistic sense of themselves. Alcoholic Anonymous, for example, emphasises that alcoholics should admit that they are powerless over alcohol and that they will always remain an alcoholic. Nordgren says that these recurring themes could help people to avoid “[drifting] back toward the illusory belief that they can handle their cravings.”

Reference:

More unexpected psychology:


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Comments

  1. #1 A. willow
    November 10, 2009

    Wow,that’s fascinating.I wonder how much knowing these results would affect a person’s self-control,if at all.

  2. #2 Lilian Nattel
    November 10, 2009

    I quit smoking over 20 years ago. I’ve never forgotten how hard it was, and often thought about it, especially in the first years. And that kept me from lighting up. Even now I occasionally have a bad dream that I started smoking again, and so relieved to wake up and find it was a dream. So my personal experience attests to the power of knowing one’s own weakness.

  3. #3 JHB
    November 10, 2009

    I read your blog regularly and really like it, so many, many apologies in advance for this grammatical nitpicking…

    There’s no apostrophe in ‘its’ when used as a possessive, so it should be ‘The test, however, was a sham and its decrees were random’, rather than ‘it’s decrees were random’. The other 3 uses of ‘it’s’ are correct, as it’s being used – in those cases – as an abbreviation of ‘it is’.

    But you’re still one of the best writers on this site – thanks!

  4. #4 Ed Yong
    November 10, 2009

    Meh – grammatical nitpicking is welcome here. I will and do often make grammatical mistakes but I can confirm that this isn’t because my grammar is shite – it’s because I rarely have time to proofread these pieces. JHB gets extra points for not falling foul of Muphry’s Law…

  5. #5 JHB
    November 10, 2009

    Yeah, figured that was probably the case. I forgive you completely and wont do it again…

  6. #6 Mike Olson
    November 10, 2009

    AA suggests a person is powerless over alcohol and tells its members that a Higher Power will control their impulses. In some instances the “Higher Power,” is a chair, pole or other inanimate object. Ultimately, most successful members become and advocate a fundamentalist form of Christianity which involves a very controlling God and conflicting statements regarding free will v. determinism. This can lead to some very strange philosophies on how to treat others. Rational Recovery advocates seeing your addiction as a ravenous, unthinking beast. You are human you can over come it. But, any thoughts of use are a part of the beast…thus your supposed ‘power’ only relates to your ability to stop ‘the beast’ from gettings it’s way and using again. I have faith, but AA’s advocacy of magical thinking, miracles and a God more concerned with the ‘disease’ of addiction than with childhood onset leukemia, is frightening. That is not to say that their experience has not given them some good ideas…simply that they are an old paradigm based on 19th century evangelical beliefs and aren’t as successful as the general population seems to believe. RR pushes towards a more effective notion of how to deal with addiction…or at least the notion that different forms of treatment may work better for different people.

  7. #7 Azkyroth
    November 10, 2009

    AA suggests a person is powerless over alcohol and tells its members that a Higher Power will control their impulses. In some instances the “Higher Power,” is a chair, pole or other inanimate object. Ultimately, most successful members become and advocate a fundamentalist form of Christianity which involves a very controlling God and conflicting statements regarding free will v. determinism. This can lead to some very strange philosophies on how to treat others. Rational Recovery advocates seeing your addiction as a ravenous, unthinking beast. You are human you can over come it. But, any thoughts of use are a part of the beast…thus your supposed ‘power’ only relates to your ability to stop ‘the beast’ from gettings it’s way and using again. I have faith, but AA’s advocacy of magical thinking, miracles and a God more concerned with the ‘disease’ of addiction than with childhood onset leukemia, is frightening. That is not to say that their experience has not given them some good ideas…simply that they are an old paradigm based on 19th century evangelical beliefs and aren’t as successful as the general population seems to believe. RR pushes towards a more effective notion of how to deal with addiction…or at least the notion that different forms of treatment may work better for different people.

    My secondhand experience with AA suggests that they’ve essentially taken and understood and formalized principles and understanding that are, fundamentally, human, and then enmeshed them almost inextricably in the idiom and jargon of Christianity. I accompanied my wife to a few meetings and was extremely uncomfortable, as an atheist, listening to the meeting; I imagine a black person sitting and listening to people talking about the “darkness in the world” and the “black day” on the stock market and “black-hearted” politicians and dictators might feel similarly. I would predict that the program’s effectiveness would correlate strongly with how positively a prospective membered felt about “God-talk”; I can tell right away that on those grounds, if I ever became addicted it wouldn’t work with me.

  8. #8 Ed Yong
    November 10, 2009

    That’s fascinating. Are you both from the US and if so, does anyone else have similar experiences from AA meetings in other countries? I’m wondering if this is a systemic problem with the brand or whether it’s a US-centric one?

  9. #9 llewelly
    November 10, 2009

    But unexpectedly, the very people who think they are most restrained are also most likely to be impulsive. Their inflated belief in their own self-control leads them to overexpose themselves to temptation.

    Why is this unexpected? It seems so similar to other biases, like the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  10. #10 Rodrigo
    November 10, 2009

    Mexican chapters of AA are also like that. They go a lot for “Just believe in something, I don’t care what”, which they then implicitly qualify with the rest of their words, and the meeting place’s environment and decoration: Your “something” better be an all-powerful, personalized, male, bearded creator. Bonus points if he happened to have a son, and he happened to sacrifice him (for you). Double bonus points in Mexico if the son’s mother’s named Maria and looks like the paintings in the Basilica de Guadalupe ;)

    It’s not surprising, really, seeing as how they work off translations of the same basic literature.

  11. #11 Mike Olson
    November 10, 2009

    AA was founded by Bill Wilson after he encountered a friend who had become involved in the Buchman movement. This was a system started by a Luthern minister whose intent was to develop a set of beliefs in which members could then go out and become involved in any church congregation and move them towards similar evangelical beliefs. Buchman believed in a benovolent dictatorship and supported Adolf Hitler. Wilson, claimed to have had a “spiritual awakening,” but was under the effects of belladonna a the time. Bill considered himself a new man and wrote the “Big Book,” which uses a lot of sciencie sounding phrases and terms but ultimately supports the same notion of powerlessness and acquesence to authority figures Buchman desired. Further, Bill had a problem with infidelilty. He ghost wrote the Big Book and a chapter dedicated to wives and a listing of resentments seems to indicate giving folks a very big pass on marital infidelities both from the point of view of the wife and the man whose wife has been seduced. My point is that the whole belief system in AA has a bias towards addicts who are pretty hedonistic(in all regards, not just substance of choice) with a desire to ‘come to God.’ Even today the phrase ‘acceptance’ in AA circles has more of a meaning regarding accepting Jesus Christ, than accepting alcoholism as a disease. Similar ideation can be found with the term denial…which can be used for pretty much any situation in which strict AA dogma is not accepted.

  12. #12 Mike Olson
    November 10, 2009

    Regarding God talk: I’m a Presbyterian. The whole time I was involved in AA I wanted to have a group I could engage in a Bible study with, that was not centered on “how the Bible relates to AA,” or fundamentalist belief systems. At one point I met a clergyman who had a great deal of knowledge of Biblical history, as well as the roots of those beliefs and various symbolism used in the Bible. I loved talking to the man. However, he seemed more concerned with directing me towards AA, AA spirituality and their notion of what they call “kindergarten spirituality,” which assumes that if you’ve overindulged it is for entirely selfish reasons, you’ve got no morals, no real faith, a lack of ethics and essentially can’t be trusted in any situations without a sponsor looking over your shoulders. Frankly, as time has gone on, I’ve come to realize I have more in common, generally, with atheists than I do with fundies and literalists that seem to heavily populate the AA movement.

  13. #13 Toos
    November 10, 2009

    Ed, some answer to your question:
    My AA-experience in the Netherlands: nothing religious at all. Just got very useful advices. The most important ones for me:
    - Decide before, if you will drink that day or not.
    - One day of not keeping your decision not to drink, hasn’t to be a complete failure. Only that one day it was. Not past days. Nor the next day: a new chance for keeping your decision again.

  14. #14 Nathan Myers
    November 10, 2009

    This whole discussion of AA has been most useful in alerting me to the existence of the alternative, Rational Recovery, which I had never heard of. Funny, their office right down the road, a half-hour from home.

  15. #15 P
    November 10, 2009

    AA works if you have a willingness to be open to spiritual beliefs,mainly that there is a power greater than you or the drug or drink. Not a door knob etc… that this power in willing and able to help you overcome what you are powerless over..admiting that you are powerless try controlled drinking one a day. One every other day. Most true alcoholics will fail. The other steps are just footwork done, not easy, but can allow a life changing result NOT BY THE PERSON, but by a higher power,which creates a lifelong gratitude and natural desire to show others how to be free, which in essenince is a unselfish love to help others without any cost, and to enjoy life for what it can be. This is usually not done by only the dying who have no other choice, and are willing to go to any length. After close to 30 yrs, I have become able to grasp and cherish what is really there in that Big Book. I feel for those to do not or will not go to any length to get to where it really works.

  16. #16 independent
    November 10, 2009

    The assumption that we can control our behavior seems rooted in the idea of free will; AA’s ‘putting faith in higher power XYZ’ is the Western equivalent of acknowledging determinism. Secularists could easily adapt this using an understanding of the neurological basis for our behavior.

  17. #17 Jordi
    November 11, 2009

    It seems to me that this research only shows a rather indirect link:

    1. Overconfidence in own discipline leads to putting yourself in more tempting situations.
    2. More tempting situations lead to a higher probability of succumbing to that temptation.

    There is a link, but it is indirect. It would be interesting to see if this overconfidence can also directly relate to people more easily succumbing. This can easily be researched by doing the same experiments, but not letting people decide what snack they want, or where they want their cigarette.

  18. #18 Onkel Bob
    November 11, 2009

    I do not remember who said it, it was an NPR piece a few years back, but there was a question as to why it seemed there were (are) so many pedophiles among the church hierarchy. The supposition was that these men entered the priesthood, etc., believing that such a profession would cleanse them of their “evil,” but instead found themselves in an environment where they could indulge and be protected.

  19. #19 lisa
    November 11, 2009

    In my experience AA does not require belief in God or Christianity, nor am I “Christian” in the usual sense.

  20. #20 Mike Olson
    November 11, 2009

    Step three: Made a decision to turn the will and care of our lives over to *GOD* as we understood him.
    Step five: Admitted to *GOD* ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our problems.
    Step six: were entirely ready to have *GOD* remove all these defects of character.
    Step seven: Humbly asked *GOD* to remove our shortcomings.
    Step eleven: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with *GOD*…
    The meetings are opened with a slightly reinterpreted version of the original serenity prayer which had great intentions and closes with the Lords Prayer which is of course attributed to Christ.

    The steps have been called, by various authors and posters, “Christianity for Dummies.” AS to the notion of being open to spiritual belief, or being open to spiritual discussion, I’m very open to it. But, there is a difference between that and believing that I have no control over my behavior and God can and will control my behavior. I believe in God, but if he is going to create miracles, stopping me from going to the tavern seems pretty far down on the miracle list. A more likely explanation would be that drinking a beer feels really, really good and I like it alot. But, I’ve gotten in enough trouble, in my opinion, that I’d like to stop. By claiming to have a disease I deny responsibility for my past action and insulate against blame for future addictive behavior.

  21. #21 windy
    November 11, 2009

    AA’s ‘putting faith in higher power XYZ’ is the Western equivalent of acknowledging determinism.

    So you think people can *choose* to acknowledge determinism?

  22. #22 anonymous
    November 11, 2009

    I once attended group counselling sessions for alcoholism. The counsellor regularly encouraged us to go to AA meetings. I approached him and explained that I had difficulties with the need to accept a higher power external to myself, and to the constant references to spirituality.

    He told me that man has a god-sized hole which needs to be filled, and that either we fill it with god, or we fill it with drink and drugs.

    I promptly quit counselling and went out for a drink.

  23. #23 P
    November 12, 2009

    What most people, and those who are prideful, thinking they can do anything if they try hard enough can change any behavior or habit they have. WRONG. There is line, which most will not admit,once crossed they are unable on there own can change or be free from. This dark truth covers the seven sins, and when man oversteps that line there is no hope but for a spiritual solution. Rant and rave all you want the truth cannot be changed. This is the human conditon for those who have not reached this point in drink or other, those who profess to be able to control there choice have not reached the hopelessness that can come, or just have switched additictions and are fooling themselves. We are spiritual as well as physcial, and like it or not we have very little or no power when we reach some truths about are condition. This may sound harsh, but I found I could not get any help until I knew the truth about myself and as I shared in comment 16, a solution.

  24. #24 P
    November 12, 2009

    It was comment 15 not 16.

  25. #25 teobesta
    November 12, 2009

    i read this article as soon as i saw your intriguing tweet and realized its liberating effect (coupled with an article about the orchid genes concept) when i spent the next day as if floating on cloud 9. today the significance of that reality has hit me and i realize that i desperately and unequivocally need help. i admit it. i do.
    there!

  26. #26 Abel Pharmboy
    November 12, 2009

    One of my colleagues put up a great post on how he modified the AA approach for it to work for the “spiritually-challenged” because some of the other aspects are quite valuable.

    I know people who’ve gotten sober without AA and many for whom AA did not work, such as my Dad who died of alcoholism at 58, before he had a chance to meet his grandkids. (I’ve heard the retort that it’s not that AA didn’t work for my Dad, it’s that he didn’t work AA – which, as you might guess, pisses me off to no end.).

    I’m of the mind that if you have a substance dependence problem and want to turn your life around, whatever works for you, works. (Ed or JHB can fix my use of commas ;-))

  27. #27 Mike Olson
    November 12, 2009

    I can also agree that if something works for you and you are functional that’s cool. But, and this is an incredibly important caveat, being labled an alcoholic or substance abuser is an incredibly subjective thing. Without a history of legal or professional trouble, or even without a personal history which includes blackouts, drinking at odd hours or inappropriate times, a person can be labled a substance abuser and without comment on the spelling mistakes which could be result of emotion, many, many, many folks in the U.S. feel as the poster @ #23. Careers can be destroyed, educations lost, families estranged not due to alcohol, but rather because of folks like #23 who’ve decided that the only treatment for what has been judged to be over indulgence(God forbid that judgement is made by folks who completely abstain or people who’ve been abused by an alcoholic)is a spirituality and a program that is a fantastically horrible fit for the person they’ve targeted. And *PHARMBOY* with all due apologies to your friend, I am not “terminally unique.” Nor do I have a God sized whole. Nor am I failing to take responsibility for my problem. Nor am i blaming others for some problem inherent to myself. I am saying recovering alkies and their support groups exist in many areas of society and life can become very hard…not because they know you in reality…but because they are willing to simply act on the suggestion you are an alky.

  28. #28 Monado
    November 14, 2009

    Jordi, that’s what I thought about the temptations.

    A buddy system, with one or more buddies, works for a lot of things that require a bit of willpower: Housecleaning. De-cluttering. Not buying too much. Dieting. Exercise. Studying. Looking for work. Quitting.

    I would welcome a support group but would find the insistence on God a distraction.

  29. #29 Brian
    March 15, 2010

    Nice information. You are probably right about the temptation thing. The more people restrain themselves with dieting for exercising and fat lose, the more they eat because of it.

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