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How To Win the Temptation Game

When faced with temptation, we can either give into it, or not.  The reason we choose one way or another has to do with how we deliberate.  Despite common belief, this is far from a purely rational process.  We believe that we are a kind of superhero with the ability to use something we call "willpower" to overcome temptation and make the right choices, but we don't realize that this power of the will is part of the same system that is being influenced by the temptation—it is not magically or supernaturally above it.  Perhaps some of us, in some situations, can use our willpower to overcome powerful biological and environmental influences as they are encountered.  But all of us, in many situations, can use our abilities of foresight and planning to mitigate and even avoid the influences that would otherwise get in our way of making better choices that lead to greater achievements.  In other words, we can play the temptation game and most likely lose, or be smart and plan ahead so you don't have to play.

That Damn Evolution!

We did not evolve to thrive in our current environment.  This fact explains why we often feel compelled to do things that are not in our best interest—or the best interest of anyone, for that matter.  A common yet apt example is our desire for sugary foods and tendency to consume as many calories as possible.  Hundreds of thousands of years ago, this evolved preference for sugar and overeating allowed our ancestors to survive in an environment where meals were scarce and the time between meals could extend for days.  Those who did not evolve this preference, removed themselves from the gene pool, failing to pass on their sugar-avoiding or "sensible diet" genes.  Of course, most of us (at least those reading this) have plenty of access to food and don't need the quick bursts of energy sugar provides to escape predators, but we still are evolutionarily wired to be sugar-craving gluttons, thanks to the annoyingly slow pace of evolution.  Conflicts between evolution and human flourishing are not limited to dietary challenges.  We are wired to pass on our genes, and that goal often comes at the expense of what we desire as a species.

Replace Willpower with Planning Power

My wife thinks I have amazing willpower since I virtually never snack before dinner.  The truth is, I am a slave to my desires and given the right conditions, I will easily give into a piece of mouth-watering chocolate any time of the day.  But what I use is greater than willpower, because there is no internal struggle when deciding upon a course of action (e.g. to eat the chocolate or not).  What I use can be referred to as planning power—the ability to make decisions in the present that will benefit my future self. This kind of planning requires self-knowledge, a basic understanding of probability, and a general distrust in one's own willpower.  I know that if I have candy in my desk drawer, I will be far more likely to snack than if I didn't have such easy access to the sugary sweets.  As far as the internal struggles with temptation, I experience just seconds of the struggle when deciding to put candy in my drawer as opposed to the potential hours of cumulative struggle warding off the temptation to eat the candy in my drawer.  Planning ahead allows you to avoid the temptation that will ultimately get the better of you.

The Odds Are Ever In Your Favor—Not!

There is no doubt that we experience something we call "willpower," or the ability to exert our will in the decision-making process.  Willpower can be understood as resisting a benefit for the current self based on placing a higher value on a benefit for the future self.  Ironically, exerting willpower is NOT always the rational choice.  In many circumstances, it is rational for us to discount the future.  For example, any rational person would rather have $100 today than $100 a year from now.  It has been argued that this discounting has evolutionary roots, so in addition to being rational, we are also wired to favor the present self at the expense of the future self.  Again, favoring the present self would be the ideal strategy if the goal were to live just long enough to reproduce and raise children until they are independent, but it is a less than ideal strategy for those of us hoping not just to live, but to flourish into our 90s and beyond.  Relying on your willpower when you are up against both rationality and hundreds of thousands of years of evolution can be like picking a fight with a professional MMA heavyweight when all 160 pounds of you had just a few karate lessons at the local YMCA.  Your best course of action is to avoid the fight by using your planning power.

Saving Ourselves From Ourselves

In the often told tale of Ulysses and the Sirens, Ulysses wanted desperately to hear the songs of the Sirens that cause all men who heard them to jump overboard into the sea to their death.  Planning ahead, the present Ulysses realized that he would be powerless to the temptation, and had his crew tie him to the mast as they put wax in their ears.  Of course, Ulysses could have used wax in his ears as well or even took another route, but then it would have been a lousy story.  We might be the only species on earth that has this kind of planning power to predict future outcomes and set the conditions to protect our future selves from making poor decisions while we are in an emotionally charged state.  The big mistake we make is in not realizing that emotions play a large part in our deliberative processes.  Decisions are based on motivation and desire—not pure rationality.  This is a very good (and necessary) thing.  Our motivations and desires are strengthened as a result of a long-term feedback loop influenced by rationality, but not when motivations and desires are the results of temporary biological or hormonal states.  This idea is summed up nicely in a common piece of folk wisdom: Don't go food shopping on an empty stomach.

I have already given a few food-related examples where recognizing your own weakness of eating easily available junk food is better addressed by not buying the junk food or at least not making it so accessible.  In that example, you are altering future environmental conditions rather than relying on your future biological state.  This removes all future temptation and internal struggle (i.e., you won't be tempted to eat the Twinkies that you don't have).  If you are married and find yourself tempted to cheat on your spouse, don't allow yourself to be put in positions of temptation.  Don't spend hours at bars where you have too much to drink, don't take other potential lovers out to dinner as "just friends," and don't sleep naked with people who aren't your spouse.  If you are working on any long-term goal (and you should be), think about under what conditions that goal is more likely to be met and temptations avoided, and create those conditions.

If You Can't Be Stronger, Be Smarter

Perhaps more people don't plan for future decisions because they believe they have strong willpower—the magical force that can overcome any temptation.  I propose that you trade in this idea of being stronger for being smarter.  Allow your present and future selves to face-off, but only when necessary, understanding that your present self has both an evolutionary and, in many cases, a rational advantage.  These face-offs should be conducted ahead of time when planning for future conditions, not at times of strong emotion.  We do have limited willpower that we can and must use when necessary.  The goal is to treat willpower as a last resort, favoring planning power to create conditions in which we avoid temptation.  Games can be fun, but the temptation game is one you really don't want to play.

Action Items


Think of the temptations in your life.  How can you plan ahead to create conditions in which these temptations are mitigated or even avoided?  This can be as easy as making small lifestyle changes that can have significant long-term benefits.



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