The only smart way to resist temptation

by | May 19, 2014

Those little four-year-old marshmallow eaters could have learned something from Odysseus, the legendary ancient Greek king.

And so can you and I when it comes to resisting temptation.

In 1972, Stanford University psychology researcher Walter Mischel used a group of four-year-olds to study the long-term effects of delayed gratification.

He told his young subjects they could either have one marshmallow now, or two if they could wait for the experimenter to return from an errand.

  • About a third of the children ate the single marshmallow immediately.
  • A few held out a little longer, but then succumbed before the researcher returned.
  • About a third were able to wait fifteen to twenty minutes for the second marshmallow.

Years later, researchers checked in on the children, then high school graduates.

The ones who ate the marshmallows immediately were more stubborn and indecisive, less confident, and still sought immediate gratification. They had the habits that could lead to poor health, low job satisfaction, and frustrating lives.

The ones who had waited were more self-motivated and persistent and could delay gratification to reach their goals.

The first follow-up study, in 1988, showed that “preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than ten years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent.”

A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores. They had the habits of successful people with better health, higher job satisfaction, and happier lives.

Clearly, the greater your willpower to resist temptation, the greater your likelihood of long-term success.

You need more than willpower to resist temptation

But there’s a problem with relying on willpower, as King Odysseus knew well. Psychologists Roy Baumeister and John Tierney detail this problem in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. They conclude from research that:

“Many widely different forms of self-control draw on a common resource, or self-control strength, which is quite limited and hence can be depleted readily.”

In other words, we have a finite amount of willpower that becomes drained as we use it.

It doesn’t matter how much willpower we have — when we are stressed, tired, or suffering from cognitive overload, it is inevitable: we will cave to temptation. No one is strong enough to rely on willpower alone to resist temptation.

Shawn Achor, a leading expert on positive psychology and human potential, took notes from Odysseus when he created his “20-Second Rule” to get around this inherent problem with willpower.

As he explains in his book, The Happiness Advantage, when he struggled with keeping up the habit of practicing his guitar, he moved his guitar to be within immediate reach rather than twenty seconds away. He no longer had to rely on willpower to create his desired habit. As he wrote,

“I like to refer to this as the 20-Second Rule, because lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me form a new life habit.

“In truth, it often takes more than 20 seconds to make a difference — and sometimes it can take much less — but the strategy itself is universally applicable: Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid.

“The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.”

In other words, the best way to resist temptation is not to resist it through willpower, but rather to avoid it entirely by constructing barriers.

The harder it is to do something, the less likely we are to do it. For example, researchers have found that simply by closing the lid of an ice cream cooler in a cafeteria, they cut ice cream consumption in half. When people are required to wait in line to purchase junk food, far fewer will do so.

Make it easy to resist temptation

Want to eat healthier? Eliminate all unhealthy food from your house. Take healthy food with you everywhere you go. Prepare healthy meals and snacks in advance.

Struggling with a pornography or online gambling addiction? Install an internet filter that prevents you from visiting certain websites.

Want to cut down on your TV watching? Hide your remote control. Better yet, cancel your cable subscription entirely.

If you’re like those four-year-old marshmallow eaters who couldn’t resist temptation, it doesn’t mean you’re condemned to a less successful life. Simply remove your “marshmallows” from your life, or put up barriers that prevent you from eating them, and you sidestep the problem of weak willpower.

This is exactly what Odysseus did when he sailed past the island of the irresistible Sirens, which lured sailors to their deaths with their enchanting singing. He had all his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast of the ship.

He ordered his men to leave him tied tightly to the mast, no matter how much he would beg. When he heard the Sirens’ beautiful song, he ordered the sailors to untie him, but they bound him tighter and, according to orders, refused to release him until they had passed out of earshot.

If you’re struggling with resisting temptation, stop relying on willpower to resist it. Instead, sidestep willpower entirely by following Odysseus’s example and tying yourself to the mast.


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