Survey hints at the temptation to lie about temptation

The Barna Group has released a study on the “changing state of temptation.

It’s another one of those self-reporting studies that tells us more about what people want others to think about them than it does about what people are really like. For example:

Protestants are tempted more than Catholics (or Americans in general) by eating too much (66 percent vs. 44 percent vs. 55 percent). By contrast, Catholics are tempted more than Protestants (or Americans in general) by gossip (29 percent vs. 22 percent vs. 26 percent).

I think that may tell us more about Protestants and gossip and more about Catholics and over-eating than the other way around. Is “eating too much” highly self-reported as a temptation because it’s so prevalent? Or is it highly self-reported because it seems a safer thing to confess than other temptations perceived as more shameful or as indicative of more significant moral failings?

In Captain Marvel, the Seven Deadly Sins were sometimes presented as Pride, Envy, Greed, Anger, Sloth, Gluttony and Lust, but the list was sometimes changed by censors to substitute Laziness for Sloth, Selfishness for Gluttony, and — most interestingly — Injustice for Lust. That’s a fascinating change. …

A survey can measure the kinds of temptations people will admit to, but it’s wholly inadequate as a tool for measuring temptation itself. That figure for gossip, for instance, seems woefully under-reported. Only a quarter of Americans are tempted to gossip? How can the incidence of temptation by so much lower than the incidence of the thing itself? I can only accept that figure if I take it to mean that much of the remaining three-quarters have ceased regarding gossip as any sort of sin at all. (See also: pornography, a temptation admitted to by only 28 percent of the men surveyed.)

The best way to make sense of Barna’s findings, I think, is to brush up on our Aristotle. In Aristotle’s ethics, he distinguished between virtue and vice, but he also discussed what he called akrasia — or “incontinence.” For Aristotle, akrasia wasn’t quite the same as evil, but was a kind of weakness. It’s not the result of malice but of simple human fallibility.

What Barna’s survey tells us, it seems, is that we’re far more willing to admit to temptation to akrasia than we are to admit to being tempted to vice. Survey respondents readily confessed to being tempted by over-eating, procrastination, laziness and worry, but they were far less inclined to admit to temptation to lie and cheat. This is ironic, given that responding to this survey is, itself, a tempting occasion for lying to make oneself seem less prone or susceptible to temptation.

I think any such survey of temptation, or of behavior, is likely to follow that pattern. Respondents will feel the need to concede some failings to provide a sense of plausibility, so most will list forms of akrasia — weakness or impulsiveness, but not malice.

The dubious data produced by this survey would only really be useful if we had some harder data to contrast it with. Since the survey doesn’t measure temptation itself, only people’s willingness to admit to temptation, it would be interesting to compare Barna’s results with some reliable measure of actual temptation.

I have no idea what such a measurement would look like. The easiest approach would seem to be to measure actual behavior — presuming that anyone performing “sinful” behavior must have been tempted to do so. But measuring temptation is a trickier problem and measuring behavior won’t get us there. Since some non-zero number of people tempted to do some “sin” will resist that temptation, a measure of the incidence of the sin itself won’t account for those who were tempted, but didn’t give in.

I suppose we could construct some experiment in which subjects were confronted with temptations (psychology has a long track record of such ingeniously twisted experiments) and figure some way of measuring their response, but that difficulty of accounting for those who are genuinely tempted, but resist, would remain. (“Subject B hesitated before saying no” seems overly subjective.)

That approach also blurs the distinction between two ways we think about the idea of “temptation.” The passive-voice language we tend to use for temptation masks this a bit, but we might distinguish between external and internal sources of temptation. Such a distinction is easier to make in the abstract than it is in many concrete cases, where the two sources can seem inextricably mingled together, but broadly speaking we tend to think differently about the sort of temptation introduced by an offer and the sort of temptation that seeks out such offers.

While I can half-imagine such an experiment that might get at the prevalence of openness to external temptation, I find it much harder to imagine any such method for measuring the prevalence of internal temptation — the kind in which we seem to invite ourselves to seek out such offers.

Anybody have any devilish ideas for an experimental approach that might reliably measure such a thing?

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  • Matt

    It wouldn’t be hard data, but one way to get a check on the incidence of temptation would be (either as a separate survey, or a much later followup question in the original self-reporting survey) to ask about the subject’s success at resisting temptation.

    Original question:
    Have you been, in the last month, tempted to eat too much?  [Yes/No]

    Check/Resistance question:
    Have you, in the past month, resisted the temptation to eat too much?  [Yes/No]

    That could also be followed up with additional questions (did you actually overeat, etc) if needed.

    I would expect that people that might hesitate to say they are tempted to eat too much (I’m not a glutton!  say, are you calling me fat?) would be more willing to claim resisting that same temptation.

  • The_L1985

     The best definition of sin I can give you is “This is bad.  Some authority figure told us it was bad, so God probably said so too.”

  • P J Evans

    One common rationalization I see among excessive marijuana users is the hair-splitting “it’s not a physical addiction”, as though that somehow excused their addiction.

    Addiction seems to be neurological in nature, so it’s physical in that way. Doesn’t make it less real, or less of a problem, but it does mean that it may someday be possible to treat it more effectively.

  • arcseconds

    A simple ‘yes, you’re right; no, that’s not what I meant (you’ve completely misunderstood me, you idiot, arcseconds)’  would have sufficed :]

    Your statement was unqualified and unrestricted — no “in many cases” or “sometimes”, they’re just very hard to distinguish from one another.   You also refer to things that interfere with the will as ‘mysterious’.

    To me, the obvious case of someone who says “I want to do X but I just can’t” is an addict. 
    Was this case supposed to be covered by your statement? It sounds like not, but you didn’t give me any reason to think it was excluded from your initial statement.

    And applying your statement to this obvious case leads to the conclusion that I’ve already covered.  The only background (or at least the only one I could think of) that could make sense of this was the naive volition one.  Unfortunately plenty of people seem to really hold this view, so from my perspective there was a reasonable chance that this is where you were heading.

    Now, I really wasn’t sure that you meant this, but I thought I was reasonably clear about this.  In retrospect “hopefully you’re not going to tell me” might sound a bit patronizing and uncharitable, but “hopefully that’s not what you meant” seems pretty straight-up to me.

    OK, so now it sounds like I’ve entirely misunderstood you, but hopefully you can now see that it was a plausible interpretation of what you wrote, and not me perversely and stubbornly insisting on a particular framing.   It’s not what you meant, but I’m in the dark because having done away with that interpretation, I don’t have a clue what you’re getting at. 

    I’m curious, though, so if I’ve manged to convince you you’re not sunk in some horrible framing hole that you’ll have to dig your way out of,  maybe you could explain what you did mean?

  • I often find it helpful to explicitly agree with things I agree with. It helps keep people from inferring disagreement from my silences, which in my experience often happens, especially on the Internet.

    Yes, phrasings like “Hopefully you’re not going to tell me” and “callous victim-blaming” and “is it really that difficult to accept” and so forth strike me as, as you put it, patronizing and uncharitable. 

    No, you haven’t convinced me that I’m not stuck in a horrible framing hole I’ll have to dig my way out of in order to get to my original point.

    I agree that it’s not particularly hard to distinguish addiction from non-addiction, and I agree that I talked about the general case in general terms that didn’t explicitly exclude addiction.

    There are other special cases that are similarly simple to distinguish. Brain aneurysms that cause a loss of executive function is pretty easy to distinguish from the absence of such aneurysms, for example. The presence of external threats or other motivators/demotivators is another example.

    I agree that it would have been more precise for me to prepend my statement with some qualifier like “Barring physical dependency, external threats, executive-function-damaging brain trauma, and other behavior-disrupting pathological cases…”

    I don’t think addiction is a good model to use for
    understanding the general case of people who say they want to do
    something but don’t do it, or say they want to stop doing something but
    do it anyway. (Ditto for brain damage and external threat.)

  •  Another bit of pernicious framing that discouraged me was that you seem to take it for granted that if doing X has consequence Y, and I don’t want consequence Y, then I clearly don’t want to do X.

    For example, if drinking heavily results in my suffering and being in treatment programs, and I don’t want to suffer and be in treatment programs, you seemed to take it for granted that I don’t want to drink heavily, and that to say otherwise is victim-blaming.

    But it seems to me that I often want to do things that I don’t want to experience the consequences of doing, and that I often don’t want to do things that I want the consequences of having done. In fact, that seems pretty normal.

    And if there’s no way to talk about that state in the context of addiction without victim-blaming, then that seems like another reason why addiction is a bad model to use when talking about the relationship between things I do and want to do.

  • Dash1

     “At-one”: actually, strange though it may seem, that is the etymology. So saith the OED.