«The Explicit and Implicit Ways of Overcoming Temptation Ayelet Fishbach Luxi Shen University of Chicago A chapter to appear in Sherman, J. W., ...»
The Explicit and Implicit Ways of Overcoming Temptation
University of Chicago
A chapter to appear in Sherman, J. W., Gawronski, B., & Trope, Y. “Dual Process Theories of
the Social Mind”
The ability to exercise self-control and overcome temptation is the key to achieving many
positive life outcomes, including academic and career success, good health, and strong social ties.
Further, the lack of self-control is associated with negative outcomes, including addiction, overspending, and crime (Baron, 2003; Baumeister & Tierney, 2011; Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Loewenstein, 1996; Mischel, Cantor, & Feldman, 1996; Thaler & Shefrin, 1981). Indeed, the modern lifestyle of people in western societies is a constant battle for self-control: people have the power and the skills to achieve positive life outcomes, but they often lack the ability to resist temptations that prevent these outcomes.
A self-control dilemma is an internal conflict between a high-order and often long-term goal and a low-order and often short-term temptation (Ainslie, 1992; Carver, 2005; de Ridder, Lensvelt-Mulders, Finkenauer, Stok, & Baumeister, 2012; Duckworth & Kern, 2011; Hoch & Loewenstein, 1991; Rachlin, 2000; Thaler, 1991). For example, a diner may want to keep in shape while enjoying a fatty dessert and a parent may hope to prevent future whining while also being willing to quiet a complaining child with candy. What marks a successful exercise of selfcontrol, in turn, is the pursuit of high-order goals and overcoming temptation.
Traditionally, self-control researchers focused on the explicit processes of resisting temptation, suggesting both the experience of a goal-temptation conflict and the response to the conflict require conscious awareness and effort (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). A main conclusion from past research is that self-control is inherently difﬁcult and bound to fail if overused. Although we agree self-control can be a conscious and taxing process, we argue it is not always. An implicit and non-conscious operation mode of selfcontrol exists, and it enables a smooth pursuit of long-term interests (Alberts, Martijn, Greb, Merkelbach, & De Vries, 2007; Ferguson, 2008; Fishbach, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2003;
Fitzsimons & Bargh, 2004; Kroese, Adriaanse, Evers, & De Ridder, 2011; Wiers & Stacy, 2006).
We further suggest that when people become aware they are exercising self-control, this awareness arises partially because the conflict they face is particularly difficult and therefore not resolved prior to the recruitment of conscious awareness. By definition then, a self-control response that requires awareness is one that is elicited in reaction to a difficult-to-resolve conflict and will therefore be more likely to fail compared with an implicit self-control response that does not require awareness. Because self-control research mainly focuses on explicit processes (with notable exceptions), a general bias exists in this literature toward self-control failures.
In this chapter, we address the explicit and implicit processes of self-control. Specifically, we investigate the identification of and the response to a self-control conflict, and argue each challenge—identifying and responding to a conflict—involves implicit processes that either accompany or substitute for explicit processes. We use the terms explicit and implicit to refer to the degree of conscious awareness involved in the self-control process. Although assuming awareness varies by degree and represents a continuum is reasonable, for the sake of simplicity (and without compromising accuracy), we refer to two extreme situations: when the self-control process is either completely under conscious awareness or not.
Our analysis of self-control differs in an important aspect from other dual-process models of self-control (Bechara, Noel & Crone, 2006; Fudenberg & Levine, 2006; Hofmann, Friese, & Strack, 2009; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999; Strack & Deutsch, 2004): we focus on the similarities between the two modes, whereas other research addresses the differences. Other models distinguish between an implicit and associative process that promotes giving in to temptation and an explicit and rule-based (self-control) process that promotes goal adherence. We argue explicit and implicit self-control modes operate in tandem and follow the same basic principles. Our model, thus, echoes recent discoveries in attitude research. Traditional models of attitudinal control asserted stereotyping is an automatic response that is overridden by controlled processes (Devine, 1989; Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes, 1986). However, according to recent work, the implementation of control can become automatized to the same or a similar extent as the initial activation of the attitude (Monteith, Ashburn-Nardo, Voils, & Czopp, 2002;
Moskowitz, Gollwitzer, Wasel, & Schaal, 1999; Payne, 2001; Sherman, et al., 2008). Similarly, we identify situations in which the corrective, self-control response is no less automatic than the direct activation of desire by the presence of temptation. Thus, in our model, both the direct response to temptation with desire and the self-control response that inhibits the desire, involve implicit (as well as explicit) processes.
In what follows, we describe a two-stage model of exercising self-control that suggests self-control success requires a person to first identify a self-control conflict and then retrieve self-control operations designed to increase the motivational strength of the goal and decrease the motivational strength of temptation. We discuss the explicit and implicit processes in each of these stages.
For successful self-control, individuals need to know when and how to exercise restraint (see Figure 1, adopted from Myrseth & Fishbach, 2009). With respect to “when,” people will implement self-control only if they have identified a self-control conflict. At times, the question of identification is trivial. Thus the person who considers losing her temper in a meeting with her boss might easily recognize the long-term consequence of raising her voice at an employer. In addition, self-control researchers often provide their study participants with already identified self-control problems. For example, researchers asked children participants to delay the gratification of consuming a small candy now in favor of getting a large candy later (Mischel et al., 1989); they requested adult participants to inhibit thinking of a particular concept (e.g., “white bears”; Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987) or to inhibit various dominant responses (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). However, at other times, identification is not trivial, because the cost of a single lack of restraint is negligible; for example, the cost of a single donut for a dieter’s weight, a single cigarette for a smoker’s health, and a single day off for a professional’s career prospects is trivial. We coin the term “epsilon temptation” to describe situations in which the cost of a single indulgence, or unit consumption cost, is negligible, but that of extended consumption may prove serious. Such temptations are pervasive in modern life and pose the problem of conﬂict identiﬁcation. We further argue the process of conflict identification is almost always of a non-conscious, implicit nature.
To the extent that a self-control conﬂict is identiﬁed upon presentation of temptation, the person is likely to exert self-control. Although identification processes can then be maintained or re-activated as part of resolving the conflict (e.g., when framing choice as a self-control problem promotes restraint), it is only to the extent that self-control conflict was identified in the first place that people exercise self-control. Our research on counteractive control theory describes the process by which individuals offset the inﬂuence of temptation on goal pursuit (Fishbach & Trope, 2005; Myrseth, Fishbach, & Trope, 2009; Sheldon & Fishbach, 2011; Trope & Fishbach, 2000; Zhang & Fishbach, 2010). According to this theory, self-control involves asymmetric shifts in motivational strength: an increase in motivation to pursue a goal and a decrease in motivation to embrace temptation. Such asymmetric shifts may be conscious or not.
In what follows, we elaborate on the explicit and implicit operations of identifying conflict and responding to conflict with restraint.
Several factors contribute to conflict identification, mostly outside of conscious awareness, although once a conflict has been identified, people may be aware of it.
A. Width Viewing an action opportunity in relation to future opportunities (i.e., wide bracket) facilitates conflict identification because doing so emphasizes the significant cost of aggregated temptation (Myrseth & Fishbach, 2009). Thus the smoker who says “one cigarette won’t kill me” perceives the temptation in isolation, notes the trivial costs associated with smoking a single cigarette, and likely does not experience a conflict. The smoker who considers smoking this week or this month, however, may be more likely to perceive the cost of smoking for her longterm health, because she considers the impact of aggregated smoking. As an example of the effect of a wide frame, Read, Loewenstein, and Kalyanaraman (1999) found that when choosing several movies for several days simultaneously (i.e., a wide bracket), choosers selected more highbrow than lowbrow movies (e.g., Schindler’s List vs. My Cousin Vinny) than when they chose sequentially, for one day at a time (i.e., a narrow bracket). People apparently would like to watch highbrow movies but are tempted by lowbrow alternatives; therefore, planning their movie consumption for a period of time helps incorporate some highbrow movies.
Research on frame widths often assumes a conscious process of reasoning through the decision (Rachlin, 2000; Read, Loewenstein, & Rabin, 1999; Read, Loewenstein, & Kalyanaraman, 1999; Sussman & Alter, in press; Wood & Neal, 2007). However, implicit and subtle cues also activate perception of a wide versus narrow bracket and promote conflict identification. In studies that illustrate this possibility, food choices suggesting predictable patterns of repetition promoted self-control more than one-time food choices. For example, Myrseth and Fishbach (2009) invited passersby to help themselves to an assortment of carrots and chocolates. In one condition, the food stand had a sign saying “April 12th Stand” (a narrow bracket), and in another condition, it said “Spring Food Stand” (a wide bracket). The narrow bracket led to greater consumption of chocolates (vs. carrots) compared with the wide bracket.
B. Consistency To activate perception of self-control conflict, an individual not only needs to consider a sequence of related choices, but should also see herself consistently making the same choice across these opportunities. If she perceives she will exercise restraint at some opportunities and give in to temptations at others, the perception of a wide bracket would not promote restraint. A behavioral pattern that reflects consistency is titled “highlighting”—restraint promotes further effort to exercise restraint at the next opportunity. For example, a healthy entrée choice can encourage a person to also choose a healthy dessert. A behavioral pattern that reflects absence of consistency is titled “balancing”—restraint provides a psychological license to indulge. For example, a healthy entrée choice can justify an unhealthy dessert choice (Dhar & Simonson, 1999; Fishbach & Dhar, 2005; Fishbach, Dhar, & Zhang, 2006; Fishbach & Zhang, 2008; Koo & Fishbach, 2008).
Several situational cues activate a highlighting versus balancing choice dynamic and thus influence conflict identification. For example, the presentation of goal and temptation options separately, in two separate displays, nonconsciously promotes identification of a self-control conflict and highlighting, whereas presenting these options together, in a single display, nonconsciously hinders conflict identification and promotes balancing. In one experimental demonstration, participants consumed more healthy carrots and fewer unhealthy chocolates when these items were served in separate bowls compared with when they were served together in one bowl (Fishbach & Zhang, 2008). This study further demonstrated the choice of chocolates in the separate-bowls condition reflected the failure to identify a self-control dilemma: individual differences in the strength of the weight-watching goal (i.e., how much the participant wanted to lose weight) predicted healthy over tempting choice only when the options were presented in separate bowls, but not when they were presented together in the same bowl. Physically presenting the temptation and goal options separately (vs. together) enabled psychological identification of the self-control conflict and the exercise of self-control.
At times, the perception of inconsistency across actions or choices (i.e., balancing) provides a psychological license to indulge or relax one’s moral standards (Khan & Dhar, 2006;
Mazar & Zhong, 2010; Monin & Miller, 2001). In these situations, people use past or future virtuous choices to justify giving in to temptation in the present. For example, people are more likely to choose a luxury over a utilitarian good after indicating their intent to engage in a charitable act (Khan & Dhar, 2006). Psychological licensing reflects a failure to see a particular choice or action as posing a self-control conflict, because a person assumes her behavior in the present is different than her past or future behavior.