I got into a debate over Andy Grammer’s song, “Honey, I’m Good’.

For those who haven’t heard, I’ve embedded it below.

The lyrics are about a man’s attraction to a woman at a bar, while having a significant other at home. He recognizes his attraction, and to resist adultery, he resolves to leave the bar if he’s too tempted.

I saw this behavior as wise. My opponent saw it as a “massive character flaw”.

His reasoning: he should not have these thoughts to begin with, and that accepting he has these thoughts will inevitably crush his relationship.

I told him I admire his morality, but there’s a reason why this can’t entirely be true. Here’s why.

Another man may believe himself resilient enough, but impulse is powerful. If it were not, binge eating and drug addiction would not be the problems they are today. We suck at understanding the future and planning for long-term goals, if we get sidetracked by the short-term prize.

I debated that recognizing a weakness is not the same as being that weakness. Having those thoughts was not evil, and avoiding a scenario where temptation could overwhelm his ability resist it was worthy of praise, not criticism. He recognized he didn’t want to cheat on his wife, and knew he could prevent himself from doing it by walking away from temptation, instead of sitting by and trying to futilely resist it.

So often do we overestimate our ability to resist temptation, that scientists even have a term to describe it: Restraint Bias.

The Trappings of Restraint Bias

Restraint Bias is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control impulsive behavior. Predicting we are in greater control will put us in situations where we are tempted… and when we are tempted, we’re likely to succumb. The result: increased impulsiveness.

The trap occurs because those who believe they are in control, will more frequently lose it. They are more likely to put themselves in situations that encourage it.

Do you think you have more control than “normal people”?  You might, but you are more likely not to. A team of researchers found that those who believed they had large amounts of self-control were just as likely to succumb to temptation than those who correctly assessed they would succumb to temptation. Belief mattered little in the succumbing to strong temptation. 1

That said, there are differences in how well people can restrain themselves when presented with temptation. Those with stronger willpower can avoid temptations for longer. But long term changes require a change of environment. Which brings me to my next point.

How to Manipulate Your Restraint Bias

Knowing is half the battle. Now that you know people suck at resisting temptation, here are the 2 best ways we can use this to our advantage.

1) Decrease exposure to bad things. Whatever triggers your temptations, you remove from your immediate environment.

The easiest way to understand temptation is through a common temptation: snacks.

One study found that when candies were on a desk, office secretaries consumed 48% more than when candies were two meters away. Even putting candies in a drawer decreased consumption by 25%,  despite it being a very mind inconvenience. 2

There are 2 reasons why this works. The first is that they decreased visibility of tempting stimuli, preventing craving triggers caused by seeing the candy. The second is that they decreased convenience of tempting stimuli, making people less likely to snack out of habit and boredom. Simply being exposed means it’ll be used.

Now, knowing that visibility and convenience are big factors in establishing a habit, we can turn this problematic bias into a solution.

2) Increase exposure to good things. If we are biased to use what’s around us, then we can use this to our advantage. If we want to eat healthier foods (not just eat less junk food), then we may hypothesize that convenient and visible healthy foods will be snacked upon.

One company saw this research as an opportunity. Google saw employees over-eating M&Ms, and decided to run an experiment. At the time, M&Ms sat in a clear container among other treats. Some were loaded in gravity-fed containers that dispense with the push of a lever.

M&Ms in candy store

So the behavioral PhDs pulled an audacious move. They put them in opaque containers, hidden from the naked eye. Then, they place figs, pistachios, and healthy snacks in the transparent containers. The results were monumental.

The New York office consumed 3.1 million fewer kilocalories from M&Ms over seven weeks. That’s nine vending machine sized M&Ms packets for for each of the office’s 2,000 employees. And there was increased consumption of figs, pistachios, and the healthy snacks. They did all this… by moving snacks from clear containers to opaque containers. That’s it.

Simply making the M&Ms harder to find decreased temptation, and changed behavior. But just as importantly, they increased consumption of healthy foods by making them visible and convenient. 3

Another example is also fitness-related. At my corporate job, I left a dumbbell by my desk, and when I felt stressed, flabby, or bored, I saw the dumbbell and instantly felt like a little exercise. So I spend 30 seconds (or a minute) doing whatever exercise I feel like doing. Then I was energized and ready to work again.

Simply having dumbbells nearby triggered me into a healthy habit when it was convenient. And over time, that one set becomes a set every workday, for 240+ working days. That’s enough sets to constitute 24 workouts, if done a SINGLE TIME each day, let alone doing even 2 sets of exercise a day.

Talk about an efficient change.

To Sum It All Up

Restraint bias affects us all. We are notoriously bad at resisting temptation because things that are available and convenient are easier to give into.

The key isn’t to reject the bias, or believe we’re better than that. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for a lack of willpower, or talk ourselves down from doing a resolution.

Instead, we work with our bias. We can decrease visibility and convenience of things that impede our goals, or we can increase visibility and convenience of things that satisfy them.

Recognize our weakness. Then use it to our advantage. That’s the way to better habits, and a masterful, and satisfied, life.

 

Footnotes

  1. From The restraint bias: how the illusion of self-restraint promotes impulsive behavior. Nordgren, van Harreveld, and van der Pligt (2009)
  2. How Visibility and Convenience Influence Candy Consumption“. Painter, Wansink, Hieggelke (2002) 
  3. I read about the study on The Washington Post. Google crunches data on munching in office