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    Sunday, September 13, 2015

    How to Do the Right Thing (Almost) Every Time

      Temptation is everywhere, from the rich chocolate torte in the supermarket bakery case, to the possibility of finally hooking up with that neighbor or co-worker you’ve been interested in for years. You think to yourself, “What’s wrong with just one small piece?” or in the case of the liaison (assuming you’re already in a committed relationship), “How bad would it be to go out for one little drink?”

    You might also be tempted, on occasion, to behave in a way that violates your sense of right and wrong. A salesperson might fail to charge you for an expensive item, or give you too much change in a transaction. Do you reveal the error or pocket the extra cash? Although you would never commit a theft, if you can end up profiting from someone else’s mistake, the temptation may be especially hard to resist.

    The study of temptation tends to examine how people behave unethically when they truly desire to be ethical. Less frequently studied are the factors that lead people to resist temptation when it’s staring them in the face. Rutgers University psychologist Oliver Sheldon and University of Chicago’s Ayelet Fishbach (2015) believed that people would be more likely to resist temptation if they could be encouraged to take the long view—seeing one moment of unethical behavior as tied to a series of interconnected actions.

    The rationale behind Sheldon and Fishbach's series of experiments contradicts the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar addiction treatments that encourage would-be victims of temptation to take it “one day at a time.” Instead, according to the researchers' logic, dieters will be more likely to, for example, snack on one donut on a given day if they think of it as “just one donut.” But they’ll be more likely to turn it down if they regard the donut as 1 of 20 they might end up consuming over the course of the month. You might not see much harm in one donut, but you’ll see plenty of problems ahead if you anticipate that it'll set you on a path toward gobbling up nearly two dozen. Imagining those two nearly full boxes will help you turn down that single donut that doesn’t seem to pose much of a threat.

    Sheldon and Fishbach also believe that resistance to temptation involves seeing the unethical act as one that violates your sense of identity as an honest person. A truly ethical person might stray once, but not multiple times over the course of their lives.

    Anticipating temptation in the future as a way to bolster resistance makes sense from another perspective, as well. As the authors noted in their study, “Thus, much like a person who prepares to lift a piece of furniture and would apply more force if he or she expects the furniture to be heavy, expecting temptation can lead people to put more force into overcoming these obstacles in goal pursuit. As such, even a simple reminder of an upcoming temptation can lead a person to activate a self-control response that overrides the temptation” (p. 964).

    To test this prediction, the team conducted a series of four cleverly-designed studies in which participants imagined themselves being tempted to act unethically. Then, they had the chance to engage in an actual unethical act. In the first study, the researchers instructed business school students to recollect a time in the past when bending the rules helped them achieve a short-term goal. This was the “temptation prime” condition. In the “neutral prime” condition, they wrote about a time in their lives when they had a backup plan. The temptations that students mentioned were relatively serious, including minor bribery, taking shortcuts at work, and abusing work-related policies. Following this, the participants were given an exercise presenting a temptation to cheat in a buyer-seller negotiation. As predicted, those who'd been primed to recall a time that they cheated were less likely to cheat in the negotiation scenario.

    The research team next investigated the role of “psychological connectedness” on our tendency to fall prey to temptation. They argued that if you see yourself as having a continuous identity over time (being psychologically connected), you should be better able to resist temptation. Again, the assumption is that the more you see acting in unethical ways as part of a larger pattern for yourself, the easier it should be to resist the lure of an opportunity to cheat. Using a different cheating scenario, the research team found that participants who were primed by recalling a time in the past when they cheated—and who felt a strong sense of continuity of themselves over time—in fact avoided the lure of an opportunity to cheat.

    Finally, the researchers explored the role of narrow and wide “brackets” of choice. In a narrow-bracket choice, you respond to a question about a single instance, say, of cheating. In a wide-bracket choice, you’re encouraged to think about a large number of occasions. In one of these studies, participants were asked to indicate whether they would engage in the unethical behavior of stealing office supplies either once (narrow bracket) or seven times (wide bracket). If the theory is correct, people primed by recalling a previous unethical behavior should be less likely to advocate for unethical behavior when asked about a wide-bracket scenario.

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     This topic brought to you from psychologytoday.com
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