The Science Behind Temptation

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There’s an old saying we pull out when we yield to minor temptations: “The Devil made me do it.” But for addicts and those interested in the harm that comes from bad choices, this excuse won’t do. So what is actually behind those temptations and how can be beat them?

A press release from The Association for Psychological Science announced a new study addressing the issue. It appears that will power simply won’t do. In fact, the more you concentrate on not succumbing, the more likely you are to do just that.

The researchers showed that how we think about a desired state is directly influenced by how tempted we are. In other words, our thinking is driven by the desire and not the other way around. Temptation controls cognition and thinking doesn’t really do much to help.

One strategy that might spring from this is already in use in many treatment programs – avoiding the stimuli that trigger thoughts about using. Environment matters and exposure matters more than context. This is aptly demonstrated in the result of the much-lauded DARE program. It turns out that just mentioning drug and alcohol (even in a negative way) was enough to increase use in students who attended these programs. Critics claim the program is a failure.

This same mechanism might explain why the cigarette industry is keen on getting their product into movies, even if it isn’t in a positive way. For those who don’t yet smoke, it does matter how smoking appears, but for those already addicted it just triggers the cycle above.

On the positive side, eliminating all advertising for a product might be beneficial. If possible, preventing exposure altogether would be ideal. The study doesn’t go so far as addressing compulsions in addicts, but it does point out an important biological link between signals from our bodies and how we evaluate temptations. Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. While the Devil might not be involved, your biology is.

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