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Do We Know When We Are Being Tempted?

Our lives are full of temptations we might not recognize.

Key points

  • Much of the time, we do not know when we are being tempted.
  • We face situations and emotions that we often deal with automatically and unconsciously.
  • Cultivating awareness of what tempts and distracts us can help us develop self-control.
The temptation trap.
Source: MrPants/iStock

If you know when you are being tempted, does that also mean that you are the only one who is responsible for all the times that you succumb? As the guilt piles on, do you then feel like a failure?

Or do you think, as comedian Flip Wilson used to say, “The Devil made me do it,” implying that shortcomings are out of our control?

This question has been pondered through the ages. Aristotle, Plato, and other deep thinkers have noted that we all have trouble with temptation and with activating its seeming antidote, self-control.

When it’s about eating and exercise

Temptation can raise its ugly head when we try to control our eating or establish a habit of getting enough exercise.

Attempting to tame eating and/or establish exercise habits can feel completely different from each other, and understandably so. When it comes to eating, we are faced with having to restrain ourselves from snarfing down the many delectable items we see around us. When it comes to exercise, we are faced with something that takes much longer to do, involves more disruption to our daily flow, and may involve discomfort.

But there is a similarity: Both endeavors require a delay of gratification. In other words, a person needs to keep their eye on a long-term goal that holds value for them. You forego the lure of a fast-food burger for a healthier and lower-calorie alternative, knowing that it will be better for you and will be in keeping with your goal to lose some weight. You trade a leisurely Saturday morning for a workout session because you know it will feel great and be better for you than staying on the couch.

Making matters worse, temptations are always right there in front of us. Something is going to make us feel good right now. On top of that, the long-term goal may feel fairly nebulous. Feel better? Lose weight? How much better? How much weight? How long will it take to get to my goal? How long do I have to torture myself? How long do I have to “be good”?

Distractions muddy the waters

In his book Temptation, Daniel Akst focuses on the many distractions we have in our lives and how it is so tempting to give in to them. Only the last eight pages of the book have to do with how to conquer temptation, though. That message seems very clear: The problem is huge, and there isn’t much we can do about it.

It goes back to the question we began with: “Do we know when we are being tempted?" Temptation is pretty clear when we are faced with a piece of yummy cake that someone brought to work. That is one thing, but most of the time, we do not even know when we are being tempted. In fact, most of the time, it’s very difficult. To quote Akst: “Don’t be naïve: your environment acts on you in ways you can’t even begin to realize” (italics mine).

To put it simply, our environment these days is one big distraction. We are up against something so huge that it’s very difficult even to sort it out.

The problem is particularly difficult for those who are overweight or obese. Research has shown that individuals who are overweight or obese are more distractable, more impulsive, and tend to seek foods high in calories when a craving hits. This can make the problem even worse.

Some research has been dedicated to exploring the use of precommitment as a way to pre-empt an anticipated temptation. In other words, you devise alternative ways to respond before you face a given temptation. An example would be, “If someone brings in cake to work, I will plan on having tea instead.”

That’s a good idea. However, most of the situations that we face are not that straightforward or predictable. Our computers are always available, we have obligations that come up, and we have situations and emotions that we have a history of dealing with in a certain way. Some research has even suggested that precommitment works best for those who already have a good deal of self-control.

What is the answer?

How can we start to crack the code for those who have goals to lose weight and exercise more?

Akst, Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), Daniel Kahneman (Think Fast and Slow), Chip and Dan Heath (Switch), and many others have presented solutions to the temptation/distraction problem. Here are four that have been thoroughly researched and shown to be effective:

  • Arrange your environment to help you succeed. Often in the weight loss and exercise areas, you may find suggestions like “don’t have ice cream or chips in the house” or “pack your gym bag the night before and keep it in your car.” These are good suggestions, but each person needs to brainstorm for themselves what is likely to work for them.
  • Spend some quality time becoming aware of what is tempting or distracting you. Here it is important to be brutally honest and aware of what you usually do that may be sabotaging your efforts to reach certain goals. Writing things down or journaling can be very helpful. It takes practice, but the results are often revealing. Doing this obviously requires more effort than just following a program. It can be much more tempting to follow a program, but research has shown again and again that most programs do not work for long-term change.
  • Get out in nature. Why? Nature does not distract. It does not involve constant choices, other than which direction to go. Studies have shown again and again that people who have even a little access to nature have more success with self-control.
  • Try mindfulness meditation. Research has indicated that practicing meditation can have a positive effect on calming distraction and creating increased awareness of emotions and habits (i.e., temptations). It has been shown to help with weight loss and improve eating habits.

It is clear that there are many forces working against us. But there are ways to fight back. It starts with awareness of the enormity of the problem. Then we can begin to delve into where temptation shows up in our lives and plan to make changes that will be compatible with reaching our goals.


Akst, D. (2011). Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess. Penguin Books.

Nederkoorn, C., Guerrieri, A., Roefs, A., Jansen, A. (2008). Effects of impulsivity on food purchase and weight gain over time. J. Appet. Doi:10.1016.

Sjastad, H. and Ekstrom, M. (2021). Ulyssean Self-Control: Pre-commitment is effective, but choosing it freely requires good self-control. Norwegian School of Economics pre-print.

Ent, M.R., Baumeister, R.F., Tice, D.M. (2015). Trait self-control and the avoidance of temptation. Personality and Individual Differences. 74, 12-15.