Keep busy to avoid temptation

Author: Matt Bloom

Recent research suggests that the old adage that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” may offer us very useful guidance for avoiding temptations. In recent years researchers have become very interested in learning about our “executive” system which includes things like our self-control, self-discipline, willpower, self-awareness, planning, goal setting, etc. High on the list of topics is learning more about how to help people make positive changes in their lives. Often times making a positive change requires resisting the temptation to give in to old, but maladaptive, ways of behaving. Examples include common things like avoiding too many sweet foods when we want to maintain better weight or keeping ourselves from being distracted when we want to focus on an important, but disagreeable task.

One group of researchers offers some help to those of us who want to be better at avoiding temptations. They were exploring whether being busy or distracted helped people be more likely to give into the temptations they really want to avoid. Some scientists have thought that, to be successful at avoiding temptation, we need to be able to focus our attention and thoughts on the things we want to avoid. These scientists thought that some amount of idleness was necessary. In a recent series of experiments researchers found the opposite: their studies indicate that, in fact, idleness made it harder, not easier, to resist temptations. They focused on what researchers call “cognitive load,” which refers to how busy our brains are thinking and working. We experience higher cognitive load when we are engaged on activities that require a great deal of attention. These can be tasks that are challenging or demanding for us (e.g., working through a difficult problem, completing our taxes) or they can be tasks that we find very engaging (e.g., reading a great book, participating in a fun conversation). These researchers summarize their studies by noting that:

Our findings suggest that recognizing the tempting value of attractive stimuli in our living environment requires cognitive resources. This has the important implication that, contrary to traditional views, performing a concurrent demanding task may actually diminish the captivating power of temptation and thus facilitate self-regulation.

Just distracting ourselves may not be enough. Instead, the lesson seems to be that occupying ourselves in a task that requires greater focus and deeper thought is what we need to help us a fend off temptations. The good news is that we can plan to increase our cognitive load during the times we find temptations the most difficult to resist. So, keep that good book, Sudoku puzzle, or thoughtful conversation partner close at hand, especially when temptation might loom the largest.

We hope you are flourishing!

Matt and the entire Flourishing in Ministry team


Research citation: Van Dillen, L. , Papies, E. , & Hofmann, W. (2013). Turning a blind eye to temptation: How cognitive load can facilitate self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(3), 427-443.