The science of temptation

Temptation, supposedly, led to the first sin. Falling in to that sweet moment of pleasure may put you in hell later

Girl eating icecreamIn 1970, a bunch of four-year-olds were offered marshmallows by a team of two psychologists. The deal was that the children had to choose between taking one marshmallow immediately, or waiting 15 minutes and then getting a bonus of one more marshmallow. A few children actually did wait the entire 15 or 20 minutes, while others opted to go for it immediately. Some of the children, interestingly, waited for long before making the decision and coming to the conclusion that one marshmallow in the hand now was worth two in future. The researchers were studying how much longer one could hold out before giving in to the temptation.

Temptation is as old as Eve. While there are many chances of Eves today being tempted more by a piece of chocolate than a full-bodied Adam; at times justifiably, most of us can’t resist a lot. What usually follows after giving in is the “morning after” feeling, guilt and embarrassment. Temptation is fun while it lasts but the world is no paradise later.

We are tempted to do things in anger—right from wanting to dunk the boss in piranha-filled waters on a bad day at the office, to killing your mother-in-law on a bad day at home. There are temptations to shop, to follow fashions, to have sex, to label people, to offer advice, to control, to victimise, to conquer, to prove yourself, to be successful, to help, to run away, to have fun. The world is a very tempting place!

Temptation and guilt

Temptation generally has a tag of guilt to it. Those who resist it are lauded, those who cannot are disapproved of. We give in to temptation in moments of weakness. Cursing yourself later would not be necessary if you check out the recent evidence on the real cause of temptation which affects our behaviour. It might even make you feel better because, apparently, it’s your body which is supposed to make you give in.

Writes Science Daily based on the research conducted by the Association of Psychological Science, “The funny thing about being vulnerable to saying, eating, or doing the wrong thing is that humans are typically unaware that they are in a moment of weakness, unlike the strain and fatigue we feel in our muscles after a workout.”

New research conducted by the University of Kentucky psychologists suggest that there may be a biological indicator to tell us when we are working hard at resisting temptation and consequently when we are vulnerable to doing things contrary to our intentions. A measure of cardiac regulation called “heart rate variability” [HRV] appears to be linked to self-regulation.HRV is much higher when people are working to resist temptation than when they are not.

Psychologists also say that self-control takes fuel, literally. When we exercise it, resisting temptations to misbehave, our fuel tank is depleted, making subsequent efforts at self-control more and more difficult. We worsen over time and our ability to control ourselves wanes when it is exercised. Psychologist Roy F Baumeister, along with fellow researchers, found out that this fuel is sugar, in the form of glucose. The results as reported in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggest that psychological help can make people achieve greater self-control. Like muscles, self-control can be strengthened through exercise.

Brain activity

Researchers at the University of Toronto tell us what exactly happens in our brain when we give in to temptations. “Normally, when a person deviates from their goals, increased brain activity occurs in a part of the frontal lobe called the anterior cingulate cortex, which alerts the person that they are off-track.”

The researchers found that the activity here is weaker in those who suppress their feelings. After engaging in one act of self-control, this brain system seems to fail during the next act. As human beings, we have limited resources to control ourselves, and all acts of control draw from this same source. Therefore, when using this resource in one domain, for example, keeping to a diet, we are more likely to run out of this resource in a different domain, like studying hard. Once these resources are exhausted, our ability to control ourselves is diminished. An article in Medical News Today believes that this conclusion is important because then mental health experts can find ways of helping people change their behaviour. If people, even temporarily, don’t realise that they have lost control, they will not be able to stop themselves on their own.

Temptation to give in also seems to come from the natural human instinct to belong. Peer pressure is huge. We don’t want to be seen as oddballs, or to be left out of a group, and so we often give in to temptations more easily.

We also become more vulnerable to temptations when our minds are unquiet or dissatisfied. There is always the lure of taboo which demands gratification. Calm, content minds are better at dealing with temptations which are against our basic values. But when these basic needs are not met we seem to yield easily.

Different reactions

Men and women react differently to different temptations. Cultural factors too play a very big role here. Certain societies take self-control more seriously than others. Their expectations from the genders vis-a-vis temptations are different. Stereotypically, women are expected to not give in to sexual temptation while men are not expected to give in to temptations of indulging in fear, tears or other obvious vulnerability, however rough the situation.

Spiritual texts have laid a very big emphasis on keeping away from temptations. A temptation or moha is considered one of the shad ripus, the six enemies within one’s own self, and moksha, the ultimate goal of every enlightened mind, means nothing but the kshaya or erosion of moha.

While sex, alcohol and gambling have always been high on the list of “don’ts”, there are also some more. An interesting piece of poetry by the 18th century poet Anant Phandi lists out some.

“Guard yourself against temptations,” he writes. “Don’t give in to the temptation of buying on credit, taking unnecessary loans, of chasing fame and power, of standing guarantee for a friend’s financial dealings, of checking out a path that is not straight. And simply forget about being tempted by another’s loved ones. A temptation for another man’s wife cost Ravana his kingdom and the Kauravas their entire clan.Smart people don’t give in to temptations!”

Sometimes we are smart, sometimes we aren’t. Humans have always liked to portray animals as those who lack self-control. We are quick to condemn “animal impulses” and “animal-like behaviour”; as for us, aggression, greed, wars and the growing xenophobia should tell us that most of the times, we ourselves don’t do much about dealing with our temptations and impulses.

With the new-found research there seems possibility of therapeutic intervention. The best thing about life is that there’s always hope.

Gayatri Pagdi
Gayatri Pagdi is a Mumbai-based health journalist. Her areas of interest include emotional, mental and spiritual health.


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