Resisting temptation is hard

At lunch today a TED talk caught my eye and I listened to it. The talk was hardly inspiring albeit it had some interesting elements. You might watch it yourself

Commitment Devices

Daniel Goldstein takes a while to get to the point. He spins a story explaining to what length people go to resist temptations. Odysseus had himself bound to the mast of his ship and all his sailors had earwax applied so he could hear the Sirens singing without loosing his life by steering his ship into the cliffs. I had – in younger days – my credit card in the freezer when going out on Saturday nights to stick to my budget.

These are commitment devices. The theory is you are exposed to the temptation but have put measures in place avoiding you getting caught. We all know how hard it is to resist simple temptations – usually about instead pleasure. And I’m not talking about sex but simply about another glass of that beautiful red wine, that delicious piece of chocolate, or turning around in the morning and stay 5 minutes longer.

Everybody (nearly) has one or more commitment devices. Let’s start with the alarm clock and your meeting reminders. You may also have a dozen fridge magnets and a shopping list?


Self Control

The big question arising from this: Do commitment devices mean we don’t have self control?

Are people who can remember all important birthdays by heart, have an inner alarm clock and are strong willed to resist that glass of wine better people? I don’t think so. Let’s assume everybody could and would do that. Now isn’t that a scary thought? Spontaneity might as well not exist. How could it if everybody has a well measured and controlled approach. Conformity would rule big time.

Hold. Am I now saying you should let yourself go? Throw all self control over board and live life to the fullest now? I remember this poem:

Life should NOT be a journey to the grave
with the intention of arriving safely
in an attractive and well preserved body,
But rather to skid in sideways,
chocolate in one hand,
wine in the other,
body thoroughly used up,
totally worn out and screaming
“WOO HOO what a ride!”

A similar reasoning as above applies when I’m looking at this. If all people would do this our lives and our planet would be toast in a matter of years.

Judgment: Doing the Right Thing

I think there is a time for either and it is our personal judgement which must guide us to do the right thing. The logical mind weighs the good and the bad, analyses the benefits I’m getting now for the potential ramifications it will have later, and comes up with a rational decision. My gut feeling is much faster and comes to a decision because it feels right. Both are very valid approaches.

I believe gut feeling is a great way for short term low impact decision making. A second glass of wine is still okay – why not. Gut feeling is also a fantastic tool when you don’t have sufficient facts for a logical decision making process, time is of essence, or it simply feels right. When you are thinking to marry that girl or man it’s simply that it feels right.

A logical approach is better when multiple people are involved or impacted. It is also a great tool for long term and high impact decisions. Should we buy that property? The temptation is great: “look at it – wow!” – “Imaging we wake up to that view!”. Some important considerations should be made, “Can we afford it?” is likely the start.

Looking back

And finally there is an other perspective on temptation. Position yourself into the future and look back. What impact on your future self would resisting temptation or giving in have? Does it matter? How likely, scary, or exciting would that outcome be?

Resisting temptation is hard and you could neglect your future. Although, you could also miss out on the opportunity of your lifetime. Isn’t that the lure of playing games? My take is, I must be happy with the outcome of my decision be it resist or give in.

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