Resisting temptation

I’ve been reading a really interesting book this week called ‘Nudge’ by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which addresses the way we think about choice and make decisions in our lives relating to health, money and general well being.

One of the ideas that it expounds, which I though might interest readers here, is that when it comes to temptation we are all made up of two semiautonomous selves: the ‘Planner’ and the ‘Doer’.

The Planner speaks for our reflective system, thinking through decisions and trying to promote our long term welfare. The Doer, by contrast, is influenced by the automatic system, that is our inbuilt autopilot, which can lead us to all sorts of temptation and mischief, (think shovelling popcorn into your mouth at the cinema while your eyes stay glued to the screen, or sipping away at wine while someone keeps topping it up, with no idea of how much you’re consuming).

These two selves often find themselves in conflict, from when we are faced by a delicious snack just before a meal (it will ruin the meal but will be delicious…), to when we consider whether or not to go for an early morning run.

Since we are generally aware of our weaknesses or the moments we might face temptation, we can put strategies in place to avoid falling short – setting multiple alarms in the morning and laying out your running kit to make it easier to get up and go, not having tempting food stuffs in the house, swapping a bar for a cafe to meet friends so as not to be tempted by a drink.

Unfortunately, however, Doers are often difficult to rein in and can foil even the best efforts of Planners. As such it is often useful to add another element to the equation: incentives.

Incentives (and disincentives) help our Planners to keep us on track. These can be monetary – using the swear jar tactic or entering into a bet with a friend that you will both achieve x or y within a given timeframe and if one of you fails they have to pay the other.

Incentives can also be public declarations – food diaries, tweeting about you fitness goals and achievements or telling friends and family members about your plans. By making a public statement about what it is you want to achieve you are statistically more likely to achieve it and more likely to continue in such positive behavioural patterns.

Another element that can influence the outcomes of even our best intentions is the behaviour of those around us.

Thaler and Sunstein state some really interesting examples of how persuasive the actions of those around us can be and how, despite our belief in ourselves as autonomous beings, we are easily swayed – in the most extreme case to go against what we have witnessed with our own eyes – to fit in with a crowd.

This herd mentality is the explanatory factor behind such extreme statements as: obesity is contagious.

In this case, it has been shown that we are influenced by the consumption norms within a given group. You may know from your own experience that a light eater will eat more when in a group of heavy eaters, while a heavy eater will show more restraint in a light-eating group (no one likes eat pudding on their own!).

Humans are easily nudged by the behaviour of other humans either consciously or unconsciously because, despite our professions of individuality and independence, believe it or not our overriding programme setting is conformity.

Advertisers are aware of this power of social influence and use slogans like ‘most people prefer’ or ‘growing numbers of people’ are switching to one brand or another.

Such ‘social norms’ considerations can have a positive or negative effect.

If, say, students believe that over consumption of alcohol at university is the norm, or if members of a society think obesity is highly prevalent, even of these statement are not statistically true, the result is that people are influenced into thinking such behaviours are ok and thus incidences of alcohol overindulgence or obesity are seen to increase. Somehow normalising even negative behaviour makes it justifiable. (The same effect occurs with voting patterns – if the press reports that voting turnout is down it is likely that fewer people will be incentivised to turnout since ‘no one else is’.)

By contrast, the US state of Montana has adopted a programme which makes statements such as ‘most (81%) of Montana college students have four or fewer alcoholic drinks a week’ a strategy which has produced a big improvement in social perceptions of alcohol consumption and consequently, social behaviours in this regard.

What this book has made me think about is how I can adjust my environment to help me better achieve my goals and stick to my resolve, which in a world of temptation has to be pretty useful.

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