Temptation is a strong desire or drive to do something. It typically has negative connotations, and tempting objects and behaviors are often presented as gratifying in the short-term but harmful in the long-term. For example, an ex-smoker might feel tempted to smoke.
What Is Temptation?
Temptation can be overpowering, and it often co-occurs with cravings. Many people recovering from addiction describe feelings of temptation to engage in drug or alcohol abuse, but temptation can also occur in more mundane settings. A person might feel tempted to eat chocolate while on a diet, to avoid doing work and watch television instead, or to buy an expensive piece of clothing they may or may not be able to afford.
Temptation and Religion
The concept of temptation has a long history in religious traditions. Many religions describe temptation as a lure toward sinful or risky behavior. In many Christian traditions, temptation is attributed to the devil, who tempts people to do sinful things that separate them from God. Most Christian religions believe, for example, that Satan tempted Jesus in the desert for 40 days. Some other religions have similar figures who tempt people to engage in destructive or immoral behavior.
Temptation and Mental Health
Psychotherapy often plays a role in helping people overcome temptation to engage in destructive or self-sabotaging behaviors. Therapy can help people reframe damaging thought patterns and/or examine the role emotion and attachment issues play in temptation to engage in problem behaviors.
People may seek help for the temptation of addiction, as well as temptation to procrastinate, to lose their temper, to ignore their children, to be unfaithful to their partner, to prioritize short-term gratification over long-term achievement and happiness, and other types of temptation.
Temptation in Psychology
To explore the roots of temptation, it can help to understand its psychology. Many studies have been conducted to help uncover what makes people prone to temptation, what happens in the brain when a person feels tempted, and what makes it easier to resist temptation.
One study on rodents revealed some individuals may be more prone to temptation than others, and that temptation may cause them to act in ways that are extremely difficult to control. When exposed to a signal that they were going to be fed, some rats responded to the signal by treating it as if it were food. Other rats did not exhibit this behavior when presented with the signal for the food. The rats that were more drawn to the signal were more likely to have trouble controlling their behavior around similar cues (or resisting temptation).
Researchers posit that temptation is wrapped up in the brain’s reward systems. For instance, in the rodent study, rats that were more prone to temptation experienced a dopamine spike when presented with the cue for food. The rats that were not prone to temptation did not have this same dopamine spike. Scientists involved in the study suggested that while some of this behavior might be genetic, environmental factors were shown to influence whether a rat would be less resilient to temptation. For example, rats that experienced more stress when young were more likely to have trouble resisting cues when they were grown.
Temptation can become more difficult to resist the longer an individual has been making an effort to maintain self-control or self-discipline. One study revealed that when one’s mental energy levels are lower, resisting temptation can become more difficult. Making a sustained effort to keep from giving in to temptation was also shown to deplete a person’s mental energy.
While temptation may often manifest in paradoxical ways, it is possible to overcome it. If you’re having trouble staying away from a temptation to engage in a self-defeating behavior, talking to a mental health professional may help you better understand your thoughts and feelings about the tempting activity and learn strategies for resisting it. Find a therapist near me.
How to Resist Temptation
How you keep from giving in to temptation may depend on what the object of temptation is, how strong your feelings of temptation are, and the level of direness attached to the consequences of giving in to the temptation. For instance, the consequences of giving in to the temptation to eat one cookie at work might not be as extreme as the consequences of engaging in an affair with a coworker, so resisting one temptation might require different measures that are based on one’s unique circumstances.
A few research-backed ways to resist temptation include:
- Practice self-awareness and mindfulness. A study by the Association for Psychological Science found that when people were in an aroused, or “visceral” state, they were more likely to give in to temptation than when they were in an unaroused, “cold” state. Increasing your mindfulness of which state you’re in may help you recognize when you’re more prone to giving in to temptation and then avoiding triggers during that time.
- Meditate. Meditation has been shown to help people increase their mindfulness and emotional regulation skills. In turn, mindfulness and emotional regulation can not only help people become more attuned to when they’re vulnerable to giving in to cravings; it can also strengthen a person’s self-control.
- Establish healthy habits. People who have established healthy habits and routines were found to have better self-control when faced with temptation despite exerting less effort to resist the temptation. Individuals who consistently exerted a stronger effort toward self-control were in some cases more prone to giving in to temptation. This may be due to the fact that exercising self-control without the support of a habit may drain a person’s mental energy more quickly, causing them to ultimately give in to temptation.
- Adopt an “abundance” mindset. One study, building on the idea that scarcity can make cravings or temptation worse, found making the object of temptation more readily available did, in some cases, lower the person’s desire for that thing. In some cases, thinking of the object of your temptation as readily available may help reduce your cravings for it.
Temptation can be a serious issue when its long-term consequences lead to loss of job, home, health, livelihood, or relationship. If you experience a strong desire to act in a way you know isn’t good for your health or well-being and struggle with these feelings, talking with a mental health professional can help. A trained, nonjudgemental therapist can help you examine your feelings and develop healthy coping mechanisms that may allow you to process them and reduce feelings of temptation.
- Association for Psychological Science. (2007, March 22). Why we give in to temptation. Science Daily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/03/070321130906.htm
- Colman, A. M. (2001). A dictionary of psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Delany, J. (1912). Temptation. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Galla, B. M., & Duckworth, A. L. (2015.) More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 508-525. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000026
- Herbert, W. (2009, January 15). The paradox of temptation. Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman/2009/01/paradox-of-temptation.cfm
- Nauman, E. (2014, March 24). How does mindfulness improve self-control? Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/How_does_mindfulness_help_control_behavior
- Nordgren, L. F., & Chou, E. Y. (2011, October 6). The push and pull of temptation: The bidirectional influence of temptation on self-control. Psychological Science, 22(11). Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797611418349?journalCode=pssa
- The psychology of temptation. (2011, January 5). Cognitive Science Blog. Retrieved from http://cogsciblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/the-psychology-of-temptation
- Weir, K. (2012). Overcoming temptation: A twist on Pavlov’s famous conditioning experiment could point the way to new treatments for drug addiction and overeating. Monitor on Psychology, 43(9), 52. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/10/temptation
Last Updated: 06-25-2019
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