Don’t stop and think if you're among those trying to resist temptation of sweets, beer or sexy women, because thinking may not help. That is one surprising conclusion of a new study by Loran Nordgren and Eileen Chou at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Nordgren and Chou wanted to make sense of two contradictory bodies of literature.
“One shows that the presence of temptation contorts cognition in ways that promotes impulsive behaviour,” said Nordgren. Another shows that “temptation engages protective [thought] processes that promote self-control. You show a dieter a piece of cake, and an early thought is ‘I’m dieting’—and ‘no thanks,’” he stated.
Both stories leave out a crucial factor, he said: the interaction between temptation and “visceral state”—hunger, thirst, sexual desire, satiation or craving—which “dictates whether the same cognitive processes will be oriented toward impulsive behaviour or self-control.”
In one experiment, 49 male students in committed relationships watched either an erotic film, putting them in an aroused (“hot” visceral) state; or a filmed fashion show, creating a “cool” state. The experimenters then showed them images of attractive women and observed how long they gazed at them. A week later, the procedure was the same, but the men were told the women were incoming students—thus, available. This time, the aroused men gazed longer. More temptation promoted less fidelity. The cool-state men did the opposite.
What this tell us is that, “If we think of the reason versus passion struggle, we tend to think that cognition serves long-term interests and passion serves immediate gratification —the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other,” Nordgren explained.
“We also think that if you are horny or hungry, your thoughts—the angel—are in the right place, but you give into temptation—the devil,” Nordgren concluded. The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.