The strength to say no

Building willpower in a world full of temptation

Health & Fitness

May 02, 2004|By Roy Rivenburg | Roy Rivenburg,Los Angeles Times

The trouble can start at the refrigerator, in the bedroom or on the job. An overpowering urge beckons you to inhale a carton of Haagen-Dazs, cheat on your spouse or sneak to the beach instead of writing a newspaper story that was due two weeks ago.

Since the dawn of time, humans have wrestled with temptation. "I don't understand myself," St. Paul lamented in the first century. "I want to do what is right but I do not do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate."

And that was before Krispy Kreme and Internet porn. If Paul were alive today, he'd really be tormented. Psychologists say America's "instant-gratification" culture has made resisting temptation harder than ever.

But researchers are discovering ways to boost willpower. Curiously, many of their methods echo what religious mystics taught centuries ago, with some modern twists thrown in.

At first glance, temptation might not seem like an urgent national problem. But experts say its tentacles weave through a host of social ills -- divorce, obesity, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, even general misery (studies show that people with strong self-control are happier).

In the 1970s, scientists at Stanford University used marshmallows to investigate temptation's power. Preschoolers were left alone with instructions that they could eat one marshmallow right away, or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows.

Some went for the immediate payoff; others held back, distracting themselves by singing, trying to sleep or covering their eyes.

A decade later, researchers tracked down the children and, according to news reports, found that those who had waited for the second marshmallow were smarter and more self-confident.

No surprise there, says psychologist Nick Baylis of Cambridge University. Although self-control might seem limiting, it actually "enables us to behave in line with our deepest principles and most treasured goals" by freeing us from "slavery to temporary appetites."

Unfortunately, second-marshmallow thinking has nose-dived in recent years.

In some quarters, temptation is embraced as a marketing tool. Fox built an entire TV show around the concept: Temptation Island. And other companies have enshrined the word in product names for cereals, body lotions and fast food (Wendy's is rolling out a new line of sandwiches dubbed Chicken Temptations).

Culture of temptation

Across the street from a Cracker Barrel restaurant in South Carolina, Howard J. Rankin works on the front lines against temptation. The London-trained psychologist plunged into the field 30 years ago, conducting experiments that "you probably couldn't ethically do now," such as pouring martinis in front of recovering alcoholics. Today he leads seminars on how to conquer cravings and addictions.

Resisting temptation is a dying art, Rankin says. Part of the problem is that technology and pop culture have trained people to expect instant gratification of their desires. So when a temptation comes along, they're inclined to indulge it, he says. Exhibit A: 61 percent of Americans are now overweight.

Lack of willpower can also fuel unfaithfulness in relationships, he suggests: "The requirements for a loving relationship run completely counter to the mentality of an instant, disposable and user-friendly society. We are bombarded with messages about ease and convenience but come home to relationships that simply do not fit that mode."

On a deeper level, temptation is driven by "dissatisfaction with life and what you've got," says Dallas Willard, a University of Southern California philosophy professor. The No. 1 antidote, he says, is to "find a way to be grateful and thankful, and then dwell on it, because temptation thrives on dissatisfaction."

One of the Catch-22s of temptation is that successfully deflecting one enticement can undermine resistance to others.

That's because willpower fades after each use, researchers say. Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University, documented the phenomenon using a stash of radishes. He assembled a crew of student guinea pigs, starved them for several hours, then handed each person a plate of chocolate chip cookies and radishes. One group was allowed to feast on the cookies; the rest were asked to steel their resolve and eat only the radishes.

Next, both groups were instructed to perform a tedious task for as long as they could. The upshot was that the students who had expended mental energy avoiding the cookies gave up on the tedious task sooner than everyone else. "Resisting temptation is often morally necessary, but it has a psychological cost," Baumeister concluded.

The "radish effect" might also help explain why rock stars and Hollywood celebrities seem to have such trouble withstanding the lure of infidelity and drugs. The sheer volume of temptations overwhelms their ability to resist. As actress Amy Smart recently told an interviewer: "The only downside in this business is temptation -- all the pretty people, the glamour, the parties, the opportunities."

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