Why Good People Do Bad Things: The Power of Temptation

Last Updated Aug 17, 2009 1:40 AM EDT

How many times have you told yourself, I don't need that doughnut/cigarette/new pair of shoes, thinking that you'd gotten your urge under control, only to go back for that item of temptation later? If you think of yourself as someone with restraint, but often give in to temptation, you're not the only one.

A new study led by Loran Nordgren, an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, "demonstrates that individuals believe they have more restraint than they actually possess, ultimately leading to poor decision making," according to a Kellogg press release.
The study found that people in non-impulsive states often underestimate how they will react when they find themselves in an impulsive state. To return to the doughnut example, a dieter who just returned to work from a satisfying lunch may be confident he can avoid that box of Krispy Kremes in the break room for the rest of the day. However, come four o'clock he will probably be eating one.

The study has bigger implications than cheating on a diet, of course. According to Nordgren, "While our study focused on personal behaviors like smoking and eating, it is easy to apply our findings to a broader context. Understanding the power of temptation, you might also ask about the extent to which we need oversight or regulatory guidelines for business and political leaders."

While the study does not include advice for strengthening one's willpower, simply being aware of the power of temptation can help managers stay vigilant against the threat of workplace wrongdoing. It can also help guard against overconfidence.

"People are not good at anticipating the power of their urges, and those who are the most confident about their self-control are the most likely to give into temptation," said Nordgren. "The key is simply to avoid any situations where vices and other weaknesses thrive and, most importantly, for individuals to keep a humble view of their willpower."

Doughnut image courtesy of Flickr user robad0b, CC 2.0

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.