Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Temptations

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Where do temptations come from (psychologically)?
How can temptations be effectively managed?

Overview[edit | edit source]

When thinking of temptation, our minds immediately wander to things that we should not be doing when something more important is at stake. Trying not to eat the delicious foods when on a diet, trying not to spend money when your goal is to save, trying not to spend time with friends when you should studying. There are so many ways people think of temptation and there are many different types that we can encounter within our lifespan. But what motivates us to resist these temptations, what is stopping us from giving in to each and every temptation that we come across?

Temptation[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. "Adam and Eve" by Lucas Cranach the Elder

A famous example of temptation and a very old way of thinking about temptation is to think of it as the inclination to sin. Look at Adam and Even from the biblical stories, they gave into temptation and ruined their world.

Looking at another famous example of temptation, Odysseus from Greek mythology from the famous Homer poem. At one point, Odysseus was sailing home to Ithaca he is advised that him and his crew will pass through waters where the sirens will sing, causing anyone who hears their song to be so tempted that they can't resist and throw themselves into the water and to their death. Odysseus wanted to hear their song, so he made the sailors plug their ears and tie him to the mast of the ship so he could not escape. Odysseus knew he was going to give in to temptation, he knew that he would not be able to resist. Coming back to reality, how do we do as Odysseus did and strap ourselves to the mast of the ship to resist the temptation that we know is going to happen?

To start with, what exactly is temptation and how can it effect us?

What are temptations?[edit | edit source]

In their most basic form, temptations are impulses that we get when we seek immediate gratification. Temptations are not compatible with our long term goals or planned achievements. We seek immediate gratification because it is usually more appealing and interests us more than the behaviour that is compatible with our long term goal, even if the reward is larger. Humans like immediate gratification and are prone to instant pleasure as opposed to long term benefits (Reeve, 2015).

Figure 2. Would you rather eat chocolate or an apple as a snack?

Motivation for uninteresting activities is hard and usually this will be when temptations occur, would you rather sit at home and play video games or go to work? Most people will answer the same, video games. However this is not in line with our long term goal of keeping our job, or affording basic living expenses, or affording the new video game that is coming out next month. Another reason for temptations to occur is when we are in a period of emotional distress and/or internal conflict. Buying something or eating the food we are not allowed on our diet is our way of resolving this conflict (Baumeister, 2002; Rouse, Ntoumanis, Duda, 2013; Reeve 2015). We are also motivated to respond to stimuli with behaviour that seeks towards desired and pleasurable states of mind and we tend to avoid behaviour that leads us to a less desirable or even painful end goal (Bandura, 2001). With this in mind, would we rather take an apple as a snack or a chocolate bar as a snack?

Types of temptation[edit | edit source]

There are many different types of temptations, however, what type of temptation any individual will feel will depend upon their long term goals or end state of mind that they wish to achieve. If that individuals goal is to eat healthily then having the temptation of a social gathering may not necessarily be a temptation, however, if that gathering involved getting pizza for dinner, then that individual could be tempted to forego their plan of eating better for the pizza.

Some of main temptations that are used in research of self control include:

Food temptation[edit | edit source]

Either a plan to lose weight or just a plan to eat more healthily, there seems to be a growing number of people who can't resist the temptation of sugary, fatty, salty and just generally unhealthy foods. As food consumption is a physiological need, there are different motivations behind why people would give in to these particular temptations (Ouwehand & Ridder, 2008).

Physical exercise temptation[edit | edit source]

Planning to lose weight or a plan to get out of the house more for a variety of reasons, socially, exercise to improve biological functions, vitamin D etc. The allure of the couch is something just too much for people (Schwarzer, Luszczynska, Zeigelmann, Scholz, & Lippke, 2008). Physical exercise is a strenuous experience and can result in painful muscles after the fact, which is a motivator to avoid this behaviour (Rouse et al., 2013).

Sexual temptation[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Social gatherings are more appealing than studying

Infidelity is a common reason for marriage breakdowns and relationships to end[factual?]. Although sexual temptation does not always end in break up, when one partner is tempted by someone (or something?) else that the current partner is not providing, it can take a lot of self control to stop it, especially if the temptation is persistent (Ciarocco, Echevarria, & Lewandowski, 2012).

Social temptation[edit | edit source]

When students are trying their best to study hard for an exam, or they want to complete an essay early to ensure that they do the best job they can, they are more tempted to hang out with friends[factual?]. Humans are social animals and naturally we want to be a part of groups to belong to something. Finishing that essay or acing that exam may be our long term goal but the short term satisfaction of hanging out in a social circle is much more appealing (Baumann & Kuhl, 2005).

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We try to avoid immediate gratification.


Motivation[edit | edit source]

Humans look to the future, we are forward thinkers. We are motivated by this, create courses of action, and guide our behaviours based on the more desired outcome. But what we do not do is change this course of action every time it is influenced by punishments and rewards, we would constantly be changing direction. In reality people use their personal standards and push through with self direction in the face of these external and sometimes internal influences (Bandura, 2001).

Motivation is very broad and understanding all our motivations is not necessary when looking at temptations and where they come from. What is important is the underlying reason we are motivated to resist against temptations. An individual could easily just eat chocolate, cake, and cookies all day but what motivates that individual to resist this temptation and eat healthily instead. This motivation comes completely from self control and self regulation.

Case study

John loves to shop. He doesn't consider himself an impulse buyer at all, he buys the things he wants and needs. However, he has promised a friend that they will go on a holiday together and needs to save money. Only two weeks after agreeing to save money John has a bad day at work, where his boss yells at him and he finds out that he will have to completely rewrite a submission that took him days to do. He has planned on going shopping that afternoon, he is determined to only buy what he needs for the trip. He goes into the shopping centre and immediately is taken by the new seasons shirts that have just arrived at one of his favourite clothing stores. He ends up spending all the money he saved last week and all the money he planned on saving this week too, but the shirts look amazing on him and make him look so much slimmer, so he can justify it right?

John is experiencing emotional distress and when faced with temptations he cannot resist as the gratification of the purchase of new shirts helps to make himself feel better.

Self control[edit | edit source]

Self control is the act of resisting temptation. If we have self control we will not give in to our impulses and we self regulate by understanding our emotions and making the conscious effort to understand that a lapse in self control will not necessarily bring us happiness (Baumeister, 2002). Self control can be thought of as the ability to resist immediate gratification, or the ability to resist short term benefits and push for those long term goals.

Self regulation is where we monitor our own needs, wants, processes and can make effective and rash decisions, using our self control. Self regulation is hard and the more we do it the harder it gets, there seems to be only so much self control that we can manage before our cognitive resources are depleted, this is called ego depletion (see ego depletion theory) (Rouse, Ntoumanis, & Duda, 2013; Baumeister et al., 1998). Self regulation is an internal process and can be as subtle as how we think about avoiding temptation. If we actively think about reaching our end goal as opposed to thinking about avoiding the temptation in front of us, it can very different effects on our self control (see regulatory focus theory) (Freitas, Liberman & Higgins, 2002). Self control is a new way of measuring success. Coming from delayed gratification experiments, self control was shown to have predictive affects on whether children would grow up to be successful adults. It had shown that the children who scored highly in self control, so who could resist temptation better, were more likely to go on to get college degrees, and have higher levels of wealth (Tedx Talks, 2012; Ameriks, Caplin, Leahy, & Tyler, 2004).

Delayed gratification[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. The marshmallow experiment[explain?].

Delayed gratification is the knowledge that if we wait we will be rewarded with something more appealing, for example, putting extra money away for retirement. We are forward thinkers we want to set the best course of action for our desired end goal, in this case having more money for retirement (Bandura, 2001). When first looked into, it was expected that if a reward was delayed that we would participate in anticipatory gratification, imagining what the the reward would be like and in turn being able to wait longer because of this. However, the opposite was found. They tested if children could wait in a room by themselves with a single marshmallow, they were told that if they waited 15 minutes they could have 2 marshmallows. 2 out of the 3 of the children ate the marshmallows before the 15 minutes were up. Further testing showed that, if they did not have the marshmallow in front on them, they held up a better resolve against temptation. These children suppressed their attention towards the temptation, they would actively cover their eyes, talk to themselves, try and distract themselves from the reward, plus it was easier to avoid the temptation if it was not in front of them (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Zeiss, 1972).

Delayed gratification can be imposed externally, by other people who even physical barriers[say what?]. Most of the time it is a internal process, which we are imposing upon ourselves, we are using self control to control temptations that stray away from our desired end state. An interesting part of this is the role frustration plays. Frustration can be defined as an interruption in the desired outcome. Therefore, we are not just imposing delayed gratification upon ourselves, by doing so we are also imposing frustration (Mischel et al., 1972).

Regulatory focus theory[edit | edit source]

Regulatory focus theory is based on two states self regulation, an individual can either seek out a match to the desired goal or they can avoid a mismatch to the desired end goal. For example, if John, wants to save money he can actively put money aside the minute he gets paid, this would work towards his end goal. But, if John were to avoid going to the shops to stop himself spending money, this would be him avoiding a mismatch to the end goal (Crowe & Higgins, 1997). The approaching to goal focus is the self trying to progress towards the end goal, it is concerned with accomplishment and everything associated. The avoidance goal focus is the self trying to keep safe and precautionary to avoid mismatches. Individuals with more approaching to goal focus are more committed in the face of failure, whereas individuals with a more avoidance goal focus will more readily quit in the face of failure (Crowe & Higgins 1997; Freitas et al., 2002).

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John keeps getting frustrated at having to wait so long until he can spend money again. What is John experiencing?

Self regulation issues
Delayed gratification
Regulatory focus issues
Anticipatory gratification

Ego depletion theory[edit | edit source]

Ego depletion was first summarised by Baumeister et al. (1998), however the underlying idea came originally from Freud, with his ego, superego and id. Freud theorised that the ego had a limited amount of energy and once it was depleted then it was less resistant to the callings of the superego and the id. Baumeister et al. (1998) suggested that an important part of the self that is used for all acts of volition is a limited resource. They theorised that this part of the self must also affect behaviour in the same way as motivation does because it overrides motivation, and it has an element of strength as there are strong and weak impulses, the stronger the impulse the more energy the self control takes to override it.

What exactly is this energy? The brain uses glucose to fuel neurotransmitters and when this glucose is depleted the brain basically stops being able to think properly, or in this case stops being able to control the self from giving in to temptation (Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007; Gailliot et al., 2007).

Case Study

Jane desperately wants to lose weight, she believes that she will become more attractive and get a boyfriend if she loses between 10 and 20 kilograms. She plans on signing up to one of these "fad" diets, she knows all the facts say they are no good for you but she can see the results on other people. Jane starts a diet and for the first few weeks she goes really well! She can just feel the kilos dropping off, she is very strict about what she eats. However, three weeks in and she has to attend a work luncheon where there is only unhealthy food put on for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea. Jane knows that if the food is in front of her she will be unable to resist the temptation. She tries her very best by avoiding the tables where the food is located and trying to distract herself by talking to other team members. She does well through morning tea, however come lunch her resolve is wavering, towards the end of lunch she can't help herself, she is starving! So she decides to only have a small amount, well a small amount turns into a decent portion and when afternoon tea rolls around she gorges herself as she has already broken her diet, so why not? After leaving the meeting she then swings past KFC for dinner, her diet is out the window now, and because she feels guilty about it, she might as well get a food that she really enjoys to cheer herself up.

Jane is experiencing ego depletion as her self control energy levels started to drop by the end of lunch and she did not seem to have any control by the end of the day. Her self control was completely out the window by the time dinner rolled around.

Physiology of self control[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Anterior cingulate cortex

Unlike Freud's model where it was proposed that the energy for self control just came from "within" there is supportive research showing the areas of the brain that are linked to self control. It mainly happens from within the prefrontal cortex, in areas such as the anterior cingulate cortex[factual?].

Although all areas of the brain require blood glucose to function, there are certain areas that are more sensitive to the flow of glucose through the brain. Responses that require more effort or are a controlled response will require more glucose, same with higher executive functioning. This also explains why the whole brain does not stop working once the glucose falls, such as with self control, if an automatic, less effortful response is less sensitive to blood glucose, it will not stop functioning if there is a drop in glucose levels. However, these functions can not be over stimulated with excess glucose to produce some super self control (Galliot & Baumeister, 2007)

Managing temptations[edit | edit source]

Knowing exactly what temptations are and how self control works is important for management of temptations. There are several ways to help to increase our self control and resist temptations. Emotional distress will play a part in the breakdown of self control as we are more willing to achieve immediate gratification rather than put ourselves through frustration. Particularly if we are not certain what our goals are or we have several goals and they conflict with each other (Baumeister, 2002). Losing track of behaviour will also cause a breakdown in self control, if an individual is trying to save money and they do not regularly check their bank account to ensure they have not spent too much or if they are trying to reach 10,000 steps in a day to try and increase their physical activity levels, but they do not wear a device which tracks the steps. Both of these situations could potentially lead to a lack of self control and cause the individual to give in to temptation (Baumeister, 2002).

We can also use the knowledge of the theories behind self control to help manage temptations.

Managing temptations with self control theories[edit | edit source]

When it comes to resisting temptation, which is a better self regulation guide to have? Brockner and Higgins (2001) answered this question with a prediction that a more avoidance goal self regulation will help as the individual is avoiding temptations in order to reach their end goal. They found that individuals in the avoidance goal self regulation actively enjoyed avoiding temptations to reach their end goal and they were more successful in doing so[for example?]. If we can harness this power of refocusing our selves into a different self regulation, we can, potentially, be more successful at avoiding temptations (Brockner & Higgins, 2001).

Another way to manage the resistance of temptations is to not allow ego depletion to occur, or not understand the cues so that recovery can occur as soon as needed. There is a need to understand our own self control limits, so we can effectively manage temptations throughout a period of time. An understanding of how recovery can occur, either through the consumption of food and or drink that will raise our blood glucose, or through rest (Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007; Gailliot et al., 2007).

Commitment contracts[edit | edit source]

Commitment contracts are agreements made in an attempt to change a particular habit or achieve a goal. It does so usually through accountability and loss aversion. The contract is either between two individuals, one individual and a software program, or even just one individual. It can be a written agreement, a verbal one, or plugged into the computer software set up for this particular cause. It can be any goal, such as saving money, or losing weight, or exercising. Within the agreement is usually a if you do not do X, Y will happen, for example, if you do not save at least $100 in the next two weeks you will send $25 off to chosen charity or if you do not exercise twice this week you will have to clean the toilet (Beshears, Choi, Laibson, Madrian, & Sakong, 2011; Gine, Karlan, & Zinmann, 2009).

Research was done by Gine et al.(2009) they had participants who wanted to quit smoking put a certain amount into a bank deposit every week and if at the end of the testing period they had not stopped smoking, they would lose all their funds. They showed that participants who signed the contract were 29% more likely to quit smoking than the control group.

The website StickK is set up specifically around commitment contracts, you can sign up, create a contract, have someone referee and even set up monetary penalties. They have a flexible system that allows you to set up a contract for anything you like.

The downside to these contracts is that we will only enter into these contracts if we are self aware of our own self control issues and of course people are generally opportunistic about their self control levels. However, if individuals can correctly foresee their future self control problems, then they will be more willing to use these commitment contracts (Beshears et al., 2011; Tedx Talks, 2012).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Temptations are not all as bad as they seem, they are merely impulses that our self control tries its hardest to resist. We experience temptations when there is an impulse that does not match up with our long terms goals. Our minds may want the immediate gratification that this impulse will bring.

We can be motivated to resist these temptations, but there is a great deal of effort that goes into this. Resisting temptations takes up energy and once that energy is depleted our self control is nowhere near as effective. Even attitudes towards how we deal with these temptations are important as well as what reward we will get and how long before we are rewarded.

The take away is that to avoid temptation one needs to be more self aware. If we are self aware of our self control we can be more active when trying to resist temptations but we can also make steps to improving this self control. If we are more self aware of how we self regulate against temptations, we can help to manipulate this to help better fit the situation and help to be more successful at resisting these temptations.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ameriks, J., Caplin, A., Leahy, J., & Tyler, T. (2007). Measuring self-control problems. The American Economic Review, 97, 966-972. Retrieved from

Baumann, N., & Kuhl, J. (2005). How to resist temptation: the effects of external control versus autonomy support on self‐regulatory dynamics. Journal of personality73, 443-470.

Baumeister, R. F. (2002). Yielding to temptation: Self-control failure, impulsive purchasing, and consumer behavior. Journal of consumer Research, 28, 670-676.

Beshears, J. L., Choi, J. J., Laibson, D., Madrian, B. C., & Sakong, J. (2011). Self control and liquidity: How to design a commitment contract. Retrieved from:

Brockner, J., & Higgins, E. T. (2001). Regulatory focus theory: Implications for the study of emotions at work. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 86, 35-66.

Ciarocco, N. J., Echevarria, J., & Lewandowski Jr, G. W. (2012). Hungry for love: The influence of self-regulation on infidelity. The Journal of social psychology, 152, 61-74.

Crowe, E., & Higgins, E. T. (1997). Regulatory focus and strategic inclinations: Promotion and prevention in decision-making. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 69, 117-132.

Freitas, A. L., Liberman, N., & Higgins, E. T. (2002). Regulatory fit and resisting temptation during goal pursuit. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 291-298.

Fries, S., & Dietz, F. (2007). Learning in the face of temptation: The case of motivational interference. The Journal of Experimental Education, 76, 93-112.

Gailliot, M. T., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). The physiology of willpower: Linking blood glucose to self-control. Personality and social psychology review, 11, 303-327.

Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., ... & Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92, 325.

Giné, X., Karlan, D., & Zinman, J. (2010). Put your money where your butt is: a commitment contract for smoking cessation. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2, 213-235. Retrieved from:

Gino, F., Schweitzer, M. E., Mead, N. L., & Ariely, D. (2011). Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 115, 191-203.

Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of personality and social psychology, 21, 204.

Ouwehand, C., & Ridder, D. T. (2008). Effects of temptation and weight on hedonics and motivation to eat in women. Obesity, 16, 1788-1793.

Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding motivation and emotion (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Rouse, P. C., Ntoumanis, N., & Duda, J. L. (2013). Effects of motivation and depletion on the ability to resist the temptation to avoid physical activity. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology11, 39-56.

Schwarzer, R., Luszczynska, A., Ziegelmann, J. P., Scholz, U., & Lippke, S. (2008). Social-cognitive predictors of physical exercise adherence: Three longitudinal studies in rehabilitation. Health Psychology, 27, 54-63.

Tedx Talks (2012, December 14). The Marshmallow Test and Why We Want Instant Gratification [video file]. Retrieved from

External links[edit | edit source]