Temptation, self-control, and inter-temporal choice

Abstract

This paper presents the \({ TSC}\) framework, a novel formalization of self-control problems. It suggests that self-control failures can be explained either by non-constant temporal discounting, or by temptation that is not neutralized by self-control. Focusing on the latter explanation, the paper organizes much of what we know about self-control problems with the aim to improve communication and collaboration between economists and psychologists. The paper also draws implications for business and behavioral public policy-making from the framework. We hope that this paper will facilitate the development of an integrated behavioral science of self-control.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Psychological self-control research includes topics such trait self-control (Tangney et al. 2004), the conflict between temptation and willpower (Hofmann et al. 2009), counteractive control (Trope and Fishbach 2000), the motivation to use self-control (Inzlicht et al. 2014), construal level theory (Fujita 2011), neurobiological correlates of self-control (Heatherton and Wagner 2011), the link between trait self-control and good habits (de Ridder et al. 2012), and proactive self-control strategies (Fujita 2011; Hofmann et al. 2012c; Duckworth et al. 2016).

  2. 2.

    Several researchers argue that the quasi-hyperbolic discounting model has become the dominant model of self-control in behavioral economics. For example, DellaVigna (2018) suggests that the quasi-hyperbolic discounting model is perhaps the most commonly used behavioral economic model. However, the quasi-hyperbolic discounting model is not the only economic attempt to formalize self-control problems. Other models including those by Thaler and Shefrin (1981), Gul and Pesendorfer (2001) and Fudenberg and Levine (2006).

  3. 3.

    Berridge distinguishes the neurological core processes of ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’ (in quotation marks) from cognitive forms of desire (wanting without quotation marks) and emotion (liking without quotation marks). Especially at the unconscious core level, ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’ can become dissociated (Berridge 2018).

  4. 4.

    It is possible to think of other functional forms that translate anticipated utility into motivation. However, we stick to this simple version to limit the parameters and be able to compare the framework with its closest analogue in behavioral economics, the quasi-hyperbolic discounting model (Laibson 1997).

  5. 5.

    We thus focus on self-control as an inhibitory process that can be, but is not always, successful. See Sects. 2.3 and 5.3 for discussions of alternative definitions of self-control that include, for example, the idea that people can use preventive self-control strategies in order to avoid temptation in the first place so that resistance attempts are not needed.

  6. 6.

    O’Donoghue and Rabin (2006) investigate the effect of sin taxes on the behavior of consumers with present-biased preferences, and Binder and Lades (2015) additionally assume that consumers can have distorted perceptions of the costs and benefits of temptation goods to illustrate the effects of behavioral policy-interventions.

  7. 7.

    We allow for convex (\(c_{xx}>0\)), linear (\(c_{xx}=0\)), and concave (\(c_{xx}<0\)) cost functions. For the latter, we additionally assume that \(u_{xx}-c_{xx}<0\), which makes sure that the behavior is well-behaved.

  8. 8.

    Short term desires are often related to the Benthamite notions of approaching pleasure and avoidance of pain, and homeostatic regulatory processes of the human body. They can be innate, but also acquired through conditional learning processes (Witt 2001). They are often intrinsically valued and experiential (Woolley and Fishbach 2015). Desires as they occur in everyday life can be measured as demonstrated by Hofmann et al. (2012c) and Delaney and Lades (2017).

  9. 9.

    Higher order goals can represent a person’s value system, self-regulatory goal standards, as well as goals defined externally for example by an individual’s employer (Hofmann et al. 2012a). Higher order goals are often related to self-conscious emotions such as pride (and guilt if goals are not achieved) (Hofmann et al. 2012c), are often pursued intentionally, are associated with declarative expectations of long-term benefits, are usually more abstract than desires (Fujita 2011), and tend to be extrinsic and instrumental (Woolley and Fishbach 2015). The strength of higher order goals is determined by the extent to which a goal represents a high-priority objective (Fishbach et al. 2003), and the determination to achieve that goal (Klein et al. 1999).

  10. 10.

    Note again that this is a narrow conceptualization of self-control success. In broader conceptualizations, also the automatic down-regulation of desires, the avoidance of temptation, and the use of pro-active self-control strategies can be viewed as self-control successes.

  11. 11.

    These two explanations for self-control problems relate closely to the distinction between sequential and parallel definitions of intra-individual conflicts as discussed by Read (2001). When individuals are tempted to consume and, at the same point in time, attempt to resist that temptation, a parallel intra-individual conflict is present. To the contrary, when individuals change their minds over time, sequential conflicts are present. Parallel conflicts between temptation and self-control that take place at the same point in time are described in the first row in Eq. (9). Most hyperbolic discounting models assume that intra-individual conflicts are sequential as the individual consists of different selves at different points in time, which is formalized better by the second row in Eq. (9).

  12. 12.

    It is up for debate whether these alternative mechanisms should be captured by the notion of self-control, self-regulation, or something else (Fujita 2011). These preventive self-control strategies have gained increasing attention in psychology in the last few years. For example, research by Hofmann et al. (2012c) and Ent et al. (2015) suggests that the trait self-control scale, introduced by Tangney et al. (2004) and used in hundreds of surveys, does not reflect individual differences in the ability to resist temptation, but rather individual differences in the ability to pro-actively avoid temptation in the first place.

  13. 13.

    DellaVigna and Malmendier (2006), for example, show that many individuals pay for gym membership, but don’t go to the gym very often. These individuals would be better off if they had paid “per visit” rather than signing a monthly contract. Self-control problems alone are not sufficient to explain this behavior. One has to additionally assume that individuals are naïve in that they are not aware of their failures to go to the gym in the future. If they were aware, i.e., if they were sophisticated, they would not have joined the gym in the first place, or had used preventive strategies that make it more likely that they go to the gym.

  14. 14.

    As described by Toussaert (2018), both hyperbolic discounting models and menu-dependent preference models suggest that individuals may have a demand for committing their future behavior. However, hyperbolically discounting individuals will choose to restrict their future behavior only if they expect to give in to temptation. To the contrary, menu-dependent preference models suggest that individuals may favor commitment even if they expect that they will be successfully resisting temptation in the future. These individuals prefer commitments as these help them to avoid the costs of having to exert self-control. Toussaert (2018) shows in an experiment that 23–36\(\%\) of her subjects favored commitment in order to avoid the costs of using self-control although they (correctly) predicted that they would successfully resist temptation.

  15. 15.

    Ulysses, for example, ordered his men to bind him to the mast, so that, no matter how tempting the sirens’ song, it would be impossible for him to cast himself into the sea. Other examples of hard commitments include self-imposed bans on casino visits, Christmas saving clubs, illiquid forms of saving for retirement, Leonid Brezhnev’s time-lock cigarette case, or website blocking apps.

  16. 16.

    More traditional approaches to modify behavior are to use bans, mandates, and price changes (taxes). It is also possible to use behavioral interventions to change the (perceived) utility that the satisfaction of short term desires will provide by, for example, stressing the immediate good feelings individuals may have when working out rather than focusing on the delayed health benefits (Woolley and Fishbach 2015). Also highlighting the achievement of long term goals can increase the chances that long term goals are achieved.

  17. 17.

    Individual well-being in the sense of experienced utility is not the only welfare standard we can think of. Other dimensions that can be used to evaluate nudges include autonomy, freedom of choice, visibility, and lack of manipulation (Sunstein 2016).

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Lades, L.K., Hofmann, W. Temptation, self-control, and inter-temporal choice. J Bioecon 21, 47–70 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10818-019-09284-2

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Keywords

  • Self-control
  • Inter-temporal choice
  • Motivation
  • Soft paternalism

Mathematics Subject Classification

  • D03
  • D90