Preparing for temptation by setting our own limits

May 22, 2012 | By | 3 Replies More

When it comes to temptations, we often fail. I’m referring to over-eating, over-drinking, procrastinating, losing one’s temper, speaking out in ignorance, and many other types of temptations–there are certainly hundreds of them. Maybe we don’t immediately fail, but eventually, when we are faced with an easy opportunities to fail, we tend to succumb. Removing the opportunity ahead of time tends to remove much of the temptation. That is why a good strategy for avoiding obesity is to avoid bringing sugary/fatty/salty food into the house in the first place. This strategy of not allowing such food into the house is much more effective than bringing junk food into the house, then trying to ignore its easy accessibility and trying to just say no.

Richard Thaler is known as the “Father of Behavioral Economics.” At, Thaler warns that we are not better off to have more alternatives to choose from. His reason runs parallel to the reasoning of Barry Schwartz, who warned of the “paradox of choice.” According to Thaler, “there are cases when I can make myself better off by restricting my future choices and commit myself to a specific course of action.” Thaler mentions the example of Odysseus, who instructed his crew to tie him to the mast and the decision of Cortés to burn his ships upon arriving in Mexico, thus removing retreat as an option. He then offers this general principle:

Many of society’s thorniest problems, from climate change to Middle East peace could be solved if the relevant parties could only find a way to commit themselves to some future course of action.

This seems right to me, as long as we carefully make these choices. We do ourselves a favor when we make it inconvenient or impossible to act destructively or unsustainably. For example, removing incandescent light bulbs from the stores means that very few people will take the extraordinary measures to track down these energy-wasteful devices (e.g., on eBay). When we commit to a future course of actions, we simplify our cognitive map of what is feasible; when we carefully and thoughtfully simplify what is feasible ahead of time, we self-regulate—we make it much more likely that our current actions will be consistent with our past words. By the same token, many people have committed to future lives of bigotry by taking public positions and buying KKK robes.  People are capable of construing warmongering as sacred.  They are capable of endowing their massively dysfunctional families or acquaintances as sacred.  There is great power in binding ourselves to a future course of action, but also great danger.

Image by Gunnar3000 at Dreamstime (with permission)

As I read Thaler’s short article, it reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s discussion of what is “sacred.” In his newest book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt writes that when a group of people come to believe that something is sacred, the members of the group lose the ability to think clearly about it. For Haidt, what is “sacred” is the diametric opposite of disgust.

We are an profligately symbolic species, and we are thus free to adopt all kinds of things as “sacred.” Whether it be a flag, a myth involving an omnipotent supernatural being or a civil right that we treasure only in the abstract, we treat our sacred things as though they were of infinite value. Many sacred things are bound up in religious traditions, but many others are not. For me, every human has a sacred duty to be self-critical in a lifelong pursuit of whatever it is that we are capable of knowing. For me, the places where my adoptive daughters were found (abandoned) in China are sacred places. For me, the sight of a street cop snatching a camera from a citizen journalist is the opposite of sacred—it is an act that disgusts me. My ideas of what are sacred bind me to smallish, ad hoc communities, not large traditional gatherings such as religious organizations or countries. Jonathan Haidt points out that for many people, what is sacred binds them to large traditional communities.

By “sacred” I mean the concept I introduced with the Sanctity foundation in the last chapter. It’s the ability to endow ideas, objects, and events with infinite value, particularly those ideas, objects, and events that bind a group together into a single entity. The process of converting pluribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle. . . . Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice . . . Once any person, book, or principle is declared sacred, then devotees can no longer question it or think clearly about it.

In other words, what large groups of people (whether a club, a family, a nation or a religious organization) determine to be sacred regulates that group. To paraphrase Thaler, sacred things morally “restrict my future choices and commit myself to a specific course of action.” We claim (and often act) as though the things that are sacred to us cannot be negotiated or disparaged. Because the thing we hold to be sacred are rarely negotiated, they serve to simplify our cognitive/moral map of our world. The things we claim to be sacred are also lenses that allow us to more what is “important” more easily, less distractingly, and direct our attention to the things that we designated to be important ahead of time.

For better or worse, the things that we declare to be sacred take on a life of their own and dictate to us (even though we were the ones who endowed the things we treasure as sacred) what we must do from here on out. This means that when it comes to deciding what is “sacred” to us, we owe it to ourselves to work hard to make careful, reasoned decision so that our conception of the sacred embodies only the types of conduct that truly makes us proud. Perhaps the bottom line is that we need to carefully do our self-critical homework when designating that which we will treat as sacred. If we are not careful, we will be led over a cliff by that which we haphazardly adopted to be sacred.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    “New York City’s plan to limit the serving size of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages sold at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts is well justified by solid evidence. High intake of these beverages (the standard 20-ounce soda contains 15 to 18 teaspoons of sugar) increases the risks of obesity and diabetes and is clearly unsafe for anyone.”

  2. Adam Herman says:

    Individual liberty doesn’t factor into this decision at all?

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