New research may reveal new insight on temptation

Researchers have potentially uncovered some interesting new findings about the science of temptation:

A new brain imaging study by Josh Greene and Joe Paxton at Harvard University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that what separates the well-behaved from the poorly-behaved might not be the ability to control your temptations but rather what kind of temptations you have. For example, foregoing the opportunity for short-term gain and satisfaction, whether it is a delicious slice of tiramisu or that wallet stuffed with cash you stumbled across in the empty parking lot, will depend more on the nature of your automatic urges than your ability to control them.

Greene and Paxton were interested in why people behave honestly when confronted with the opportunity to anonymously cheat for personal gain.

There are two hypotheses. The first is the “Will” hypothesis, which suggests that in order for people to behave honestly, they must make an active choice to resist the temptation to cheat. Then there’s the “Grace” hypothesis, which suggests we behave honestly because of the absence of temptation.

Consistent with the “Grace” hypothesis, those who acted honestly (who guessed wrong and self-reported as much) showed no increased activity in control-related areas relative to others who guessed wrong but did not have the opportunity to cheat. Honest reporting of scores, then, didn’t require will-power, these participants simply did not feel the urge to cheat. Reaction time data further supported “Grace” showing that participants who acted honestly took no longer to do so, on average, when they had the opportunity to cheat than when they did not. The authors suggest that these findings demonstrate the human capacity to, at least temporarily, achieve a state of “moral grace” – a state devoid of selfish temptation.


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