Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Restraint Bias: We Don't have As Much Control As We Think

Ever wonder why some people will be vocal opponents of an idea, then it turns out they secretly supported the idea? 

For example, people like Mark Souter (abstinence and family values advocate caught having an extramarital affair), Randal Tobias (fought to cut US funding to countries that supported prostitution, was later confirmed as a client for the "DC madam"), Larry Craig (chastised Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinski, was later arrested in a Minneapolis airport restroom for soliciting in the men's restroom), David Drier (ardent gay rights opponent, was later outed after relationship with his male chief of staff) routinely publicly state one thing, then privately do the opposite.

Why this difference between overt beliefs and behaviors?

While a lot of explanations can be given, part of the explanation comes from an erroneous thought process all of us do- the restraint bias.

We dramatically overestimate our ability to ignore our inner drives and resist temptations. That inflated sense of control causes problems because we believe we believe we can avoid temptations. In many cases, we can... for a short period of time. Eventually we succumb to the temptations, however.

If that behavior conflicts with our beliefs, we experience an uncomfortable feeling called cognitive dissonance. Becoming outspoken opponents of the very behavior that tempts us is one method to alleviate that discrepancy between our behaviors and our beliefs. We're able to "forgive" our inability to resist temptation because we're helping to prevent others from the same behaviors. Also, being an outspoken opponent of the behavior reinforces the restraint bias- we think our advocacy will help us resist the inner temptations.

Of course it doesn't. Our inner drives are decidedly biological. Try holding your breath. Eventually the buildup of carbon dioxide will force us to begin breathing again, no matter how much "willpower" we think we have. The same rule applies to all drives- eating, need for love, need for belonging, need for sex... whatever.

A great deal of shame, guilt, and other negative traits can be directly attributed to this denial of biological needs. In short, denying our inner desires is a recipe for psychological instability. If we fail to acknowledge and act on our inner desires, we develop anxiety which pollutes every facet of our lives. Why are so many people so unhappy? Odds are good they're suppressing inner desires. They're relying on their ability to resist their temptations, which is inflated due to the restraint bias. Eventually the succumb to the desires, which causes extreme guilt.

Think of a person that's dieting. They resist eating cupcakes even though they really love cupcakes. They resist for a few weeks. One day, someone brings cupcakes to work. They try to resist, but eventually give in. In most cases, they'll rationalize the behavior beforehand to preserve their self-concept. Afterward they're riddled with guilt because they couldn't resist the temptation.

So how can we avoid this trap? 

The easiest way is to acknowledge their inner needs. Strip away morality and other judgmental processes. They are what they are. Instead of denying these desires, develop an acceptable way to indulge. Satisfy the needs. 

Great communication is one of the hallmarks of great relationships. Why? The relationship participants are free to honestly communicate their deepest desires which avoids that need-denial trap. 

If you're in a relationship where you enjoy such communication- great! Savor it. If you're not, work to develop that level of communication. If it's achievable, stick with the relationship. If not, either get out or accept that you'll always be stuck in the unfulfilled desire trap. 

If you're not in a relationship, start your next relationship on the right foot and foster excellent communication from the beginning.



  1. So what does the cupcake loving dieter do with this information? Express their needs to a cupcake?

  2. Damn. I thought this post was going to be on actual restraints. Ha! Great post though. :-)

  3. Having had an extra marital affair due to lack of communication and need for love, I can totally attest to your your post. I'm in the process of self acceptance. It's hard work but liberating. Thanks for your candid blogs Jason. They have changed my life.