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?

  • Magic_Cracker

    How can we be sure that the internet isn’t just such an experiment?

  • The_L1985

     And 4chan and Something Awful are the people who failed that experiment badly.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Re: researching temptation… if I wanted to nail this down, I would start by picking some specific behavior and looking for measurable states (e.g., MRI readings) that reliably precede that behavior, that do not reliably predict that behavior, and which are not present in situations where the behavior isn’t relevant at all. 

    Re: akrasia … I’m part of a different online community that talks about akrasia a lot. As I read those discussions  I become increasingly convinced that “I wanted to do/not do X but just couldn’t bring myself to for some mysterious reason” is very hard to distinguish from “I don’t actually want to do/not do X but would prefer to believe that I do.”

  • Tofu_Killer

    Elect them to congress and track what they vote for.

  • Carstonio

    In an anonymous format, I’ll admit to being tempted by malice. I have a fight-or-flight response whenever anyone gets angry or upset, especially when I’m the target, and two or three times I’ve been tempted to tell someone to stop being angry or I’ll hurt them. The irony is that I avoid conflict and confrontation in general.

  • Ben English

    Are you seriously lumping in Goons with Channers?

    My honor, comrade, is offended, offended I say!

  • Random_Lurker

    “Temptation” itself is a very loose term here- does it refer to the Christian idea of sin? To the internal struggle with the desire for something that is bad for you? To any indulgence, or to willpower in general?

    The first step in any experiment is to define the parameters.

  • LL

    When did “worrying” become a sin?

    Now, if you call it what it often really is (meddling), then I’d see why that’s considered a sin (though I rarely hear a religious person – or a Christian, anyway – suggest that meddling is wrong), but what’s the big deal about worrying? Is this a new thing? 

  • Magic_Cracker

    When did “worrying” become a sin?

    Maybe they’re treating it as synonymous with Despair?

  • http://www.facebook.com/tomstone Thomas Stone

    Perhaps they mean ‘worrying’ in the sense in which a dog might worry at a man’s throat

  • Magic_Cracker

    Then again, maybe they mean worrying as in “You had a slightly negative thought HOW DARE YOUR QUESTION GOD’S WISDOM?!?”

  • http://vovinyl.blogspot.com/ FangsFirst

    Considering 4chan was started by a Goon…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ann-Unemori/100001112760232 Ann Unemori

    Please say I am the only one, but that comment puts me in nothing so much as the old radio silliness The Goon Show.

  • Kit

    I wanna measure brain activity while showing traditionally tempting stimuli.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    It kind of reminds me of those “job interview” questions when they ask you “What is your biggest weakness?” and you’re expected to reply with something like, “Sometimes I work too hard, and I forget about my personal life” or “I sometimes can’t stop myself from thinking of ways to add value to your company.” You’re not supposed to admit to any actual weaknesses, like your debilitating heroin addiction or your aversion to kryptonite. 

  • vsm

    The level of horribleness on 4chan varies greatly between boards. Aside from the anonymity, many of them aren’t that different from a normal hobbyist forum.

  • Lliira

    Considering the extremely high rate of eating disorders in this country, particularly among women, “too much” usually means “enough to have a healthy body, including immune system and reproductive system”. Possibly this survey found that Protestant women are more likely to have eating disorders.

  • Dale

    One technique, which may get more-accurate results, is to give people an “out” with a coin flip.

    Have you been tempted by X?
    Flip a coin.
    If the coin is tails, answer YES.
    If the coin is heads, answer the question truthfully.

    People could still lie, but they now know that no one can know if it was them or the coin, so there’s much less reason to lie. And you can still, with just a bit of math, determine what the actual percentages are.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    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.

    I am disinclined to report a desire for malice because experience has shown me that people react to me far more negatively than they would if my admittance is due to some other weakness.  

  • arcseconds

     

    I become increasingly convinced that “I wanted to do/not do X but just
    couldn’t bring myself to for some mysterious reason” is very hard to
    distinguish from “I don’t actually want to do/not do X but would prefer
    to believe that I do.”

    Well, they may be difficult to distinguish in some circumstances, but not always.

    Take an alcoholic who has fallen off the wagon one two many times, and has recently been fired for the third time for drinking on the job.  They’re back on the wagon, but their spouse has had enough and is threatening to leave if they don’t stay drive.  They’ve already spent a mint on recovery programmes. 

    But now that bottle of wine in the corner store is starting to look awfully tempting…

    Hopefully you’re not going to tell me that they actually prefer drink and treatment programmes to steady employment, their spouse, and keeping the money?

    Do I need to mention the high rate of suicide amongst alcoholics?  It’s even harder to believe they prefer drink and death to a normal, healthy life.

    These people would often do anything at all for something that would actually cure them.

    And it’s not some kind of mysterious thing that interferes with their plans.  It’s called ‘addicition’, and it’s tolerably well understood, and is often associated with detectable changes in the brain.

    Hopefully you weren’t thinking of this kind of case,  but your statement doesn’t seem to exclude it, and I’ve encountered more than a couple of people who do take this line, which I just think is the most wretched sort of callous victim-blaming for the sake of an overly simplistic volitional theory.

    If you accept this, then is it really that difficult to believe that other, less dramatic cases are similar?  I’m not denying that sometimes we have reason to suspect the person isn’t serious about addressing the matter, but charity would suggest that we ought to take their statements about what they want seriously.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    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.

    This is an interesting point. Something I’ve noticed in mainstream society (the one that I’m exposed to, anyway) is that moral language is usually employed in two circumstances: to describe particularly heinous deeds, and with reference to food–a “sinfully delicious/indulgent go on, have some” sort of thing. So for the average person, who is not a drug pushing child abuser, there’s the subtle idea that their moral life is all and only about food. Which is messed up from at least two different angles.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    As one of said people, if I may: the negative reaction is less to malice in and of itself and more to your apparent embracing of it–relishing it, indulging and delighting in fantasies of various violent things you’d love to do to make a stand and show them all. There’s a bit difference between admitting to being tempted by something and actively nurturing it.

  • Carstonio

    we’re far more willing to admit to temptation to akrasia than we are to admit to being tempted to vice.

    Would it be fair to say that all temptation is about pleasure?  The malice I described was about fear, and while I don’t see how it would qualify as temptation, it may do so in a way that I don’t understand.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Would it be fair to say that all temptation is about pleasure?

    I wouldn’t think so.

  • MH

     I’m not sure akrasia is something anyone can be tempted towards,  or that there’s a distinction between akratic actions and morally wrong ones.  The distinction between the vice of eating too much, and a vice related to or resulting in, say, lying to people certainly isn’t in Aristotle, after all.  They are both moral defects. 

    Akrasia just means knowing what the appropriate thing to do in some situation actually is, and yet doing something else because of one’s desires or passions.  (So it falls on the continuum between vice, which is not knowing what the appropriate thing to do is, and continence, which is knowing what the appropriate thing to do is, and doing it despite one’s desires and passsions.  Virtuous people, of course, have desires and passions in line with what is appropriate, not opposed to it.)  So we can be just as akratic when it comes to lying, raping, murdering, and cutting in line at the grocery store as things like overeating or procrastinating.

  • The_L1985

    Let’s face it, a troubling amount of the Goons’ articles are either “Let’s laugh at stupid/evil people” a la Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition, or the sort of nastiness that you can also find in the dark corners of Reddit.

    4chan is, well, 4chan.

    Granted, they’re bad in different ways, but both sites are pretty awful.  I’m tempted to add Maddox, but, well, he’s an online temptation for me, because I find his sort of wrongness darkly amusing.  (Oh hi, hypocrisy!)

  • The_L1985

    Shh!  Don’t remind them! ;)

  • Carstonio

    I’m classifying feelings of self-righteousness as a type of pleasure, and these feelings appear to be drivers of wrath and pride. And part of the driver of envy as well. What types of temptation wouldn’t involve pleasure? The temptation to gossip is about self-righteousness.

  • The_L1985

     True, but when the horrible parts invade the not-horrible parts from time to time, it’s pretty nasty.  I used to browse the papercraft section pretty regularly, but when the folks from /b/ would invade…well.

    There was also the debacle that led to the entire site having as a header, for over a week, “There are posters on various boards here telling you to save a certain GIF file as a JSP file and open it.  DON’T DO THAT!  What are you, STUPID?”

  • http://vovinyl.blogspot.com/ FangsFirst

    “Gratification”, “Satisfaction”, or “Comfort” might be more inclusive terms to cover the grounds of temptation, perhaps?

    I can’t think of exceptions off the top of my head, but that doesn’t mean too much. Everything I can think of seems to fit though…

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I agree that less dramatic cases of destructive behavior are similar to more dramatic ones, and that overly simplistic volitional theories are too simplistic to account for what really happens, and that wretched callous
    victim-blaming is a bad thing, and that addiction is often associated
    with detectable changes in the brain, and that people struggling with addiction are often willing to take extreme measures to cure that addiction, and that suicidal alcoholics don’t prefer drink and death to a “normal” healthy life, and that nonsuicidal alcoholics in treatment programs don’t prefer drink and treatment programs to steady employment/spouse/money, and that more generally people who lose things as a consequence of their behaviors (addictive or otherwise) don’t necessarily prefer those behaviors to the things they lose.

    And, since you’ve challenged me on it, I’ll say explicitly that any honest, decent, humane attempt to engage with destructive behavior patterns (including but not limited to addiction) does best to treat a serious desire to at least manage that addiction as the norm, and that blaming us for those patterns is rarely helpful, is sometimes counterproductive, and is usually a distraction (sometimes an intentional one) from actually changing the behavior.

    As for my original point, I don’t see any way of getting back to it that doesn’t involve a longer uphill climb out of your framing than I feel like engaging in, so I’ll drop the topic here.

  • Carstonio

    Comfort is a tricky category. If someone is harassing you while you’re riding public transportation, and won’t respond to polite requests to leave you alone and no police or security officers are available, is it reasonable to conclude that your only alternative at that moment is to hit the person? Could that be categorized as a temptation?

  • PatBannon

    Hell. I would. Goons pretend to a sophistication that is simply not present.

  • PatBannon

    …Is that really your only option? There are other options that I can understand that would be discarded out of hand (pay him to go away, shove him into another passenger and hope that that guy gets mad at him, etc), but it’s not your 100% sole option. It’s a tempting option, but it carries consequences as bad or worse than some other options.

  • Carstonio

     Of course there are other options. It’s easy for you or me to come up with alternatives and weigh the consequences when we’re discussing the situation as a hypothetical. Not so easy when you’re panicking.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The thing I have learned about addiction (mainly from watching Breaking Bad and discussions in the fandom) is that it is sometimes a very tenacious temptation. It provokes all manner of rationalizations and self-serving behavior in the name of justifying the addiction to oneself, and the worst thing is, it doesn’t even seem like it evolves in a deliberate fashion on the part of the addict.

    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.

    Neither is addiction to pornography, but nonetheless, porn addicts exist.

  • banancat

    I think a study like this would be more accurate by emphasizing anonymity. Of course study participation is anonymous but the participants still have to interact with a researcher in some way. Making a written form with no identification is probably the most anonymous-feeling way to do it. Participants can also be primed with disclaimers about confidentiality.

    There could also be ways to phrase the questions that make them seem less shameful, like how a surprising amount of rapists will admit to it if you just don’t use the R-word.

  • http://vovinyl.blogspot.com/ FangsFirst

    Those were more like alternatives, rather than a cohesive set of responses (ie, any I thought might be correct–or incorrect). And I think that could be temptation only with respect to whether you would, well, satisfy/gratify/comfort yourself with the action. Satisfaction/gratification/comfort that you’ve cowed or harmed someone you cannot otherwise remove from your life doesn’t seem inaccurate. It seems most like comfort, actually, I’d say.

    But really, it isn’t so much the only alternative factor: if you see it as a rational option, specifically the only one, and the aim is to achieve a concrete, rational goal, I don’t think that’s temptation. If it’s to relieve the stress of their harassment, that would be a kind of satisfaction or comfort.
    For example, if paying your phone bill is the only alternative to maintain a line to your employment or employment opportunities, I don’t think you would be considered “tempted” to pay it. Maybe tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t think really.

    So if it’s just “Okay, the only solution I have left for the problem of this harassment is to hit that person,” I don’t think “temptation” is the appropriate word. It’s a measured, rational decision at that point. If there’s any “I want this person to shut up and leave me the heck alone,” there’s a bit more emotion as the real driver for the decision.

    Temptation–I feel like, at least, and please apply that qualifier above–is defined by desire. Justified desires and all kinds are included, but still the desire element is necessary I think.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    My experience of the Something Awful Forums is that most of the place is pretty okay, and a bit of it is best avoided.

  • The_L1985

    Maybe I’ve just been in the wrong places. My experiences with SA have been, well, awful.

  • Ken

    I misremembered Mae West on temptation.  My memory said “I find temptation hard to resist, so I don’t”, but Google has “I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”

    Speaking of which, is it temptation if you don’t resist?  I’ve always felt there has to be at least a moment of “maybe I shouldn’t”.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Those kind of ‘net forums are really…. let’s say an acquired taste.

    When CaryB (caryjamesbond) wrote in a manner that rankled a few people around here, I noted that his style is in the vein of the kind of “barbed humor” that is often akin to the real-life men rushing at each other, chests out, to smack into one another. It can be playful-aggressive in that sense, and if misinterpreted, it can easily lead into an actual fight.

  • Dana

    So, none of the articles I could find on this study really properly explain how it was done, but it sounds like the study was one of those where they ask you how often you are tempted to do a certain thing, and give you options to check, “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “often”.

    So, the articles are reporting how often people checked the “sometimes” or “often” boxes. And that makes it SOUND like because 22% of men say they “sometimes or often” experience temptation to look at pornography, 78% of men are asserting that they are never tempted to look at pornography, which is obviously false. Presumably many more men checked the box marked “rarely,” but that’s not being mentioned in these articles, so it skews the facts.

    That’s my suspicion, anyhow.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Well, for a start I disagree with your categorisation that wrath is driven by self-righteousness. One specific category of wrath may be, but certainly not all.

    I wouldn’t say that self-righteousness is necessarily about pleasure, either. It’s often an attempted protective mechanism against fear, doubt and various other things.

    Anyway, I expect we’re using different lexicons. In religious moral theology, temptation describes the inclination to sin–not the desire to do something specifically pleasurable that is probably the more general understanding of the word.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The thing I have learned about addiction (mainly from watching Breaking Bad and discussions in the fandom) is that it is sometimes a very tenacious temptation.

    I’m pretty wary of conclusions drawn about major medical and social issues drawn largely from fandom.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    This is an interesting point. Something I’ve noticed in mainstream society (the one that I’m exposed to, anyway) is that moral language is usually employed in two circumstances: to describe particularly heinous deeds, and with reference to food–a “sinfully delicious/indulgent go on, have some” sort of thing. So for the average person, who is not a drug pushing child abuser, there’s the subtle idea that their moral life is all and only about food. Which is messed up from at least two different angles.

    And sex.  Don’t forget sex.

    Are you seriously lumping in Goons with Channers? Really?

    Yeah, don’t be ridiculous.  4chan doesn’t charge you to look at their bile.  :P

  • Carstonio

    I was suggesting that feelings of self-righteousness themselves are pleasurable, and I agree that these can be protective mechanisms. Do you have an example of wrath that wouldn’t be driven by self-righteousness?

    I don’t have a handle on what sin means in religious moral theology. I’ve heard the term “separation from God” but that’s even less clear to me. In another thread Invisible Neutrino raised the issue of social justice folks apparently using their own definitions for common words, and that’s how much of religion seems to me. It may be that some words originated with religion and then took on a different meaning in common usage, but that still results in some of the religious concepts being unclear to outsiders.

  • The_L1985

     The weird part is, I usually love that kind of humor.  Maybe I just had the luck to go to that site when I wasn’t in the right mood for it or something.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Quite a few of the fandom participants are former meth addicts.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    This.

    There are concepts and words often used in Christian discussion that Fred and others invoke for which the meaning is not immediately clear. I had some experience of this from reading Herbert Armstrong’s stuff from the WorldWide Church of God where he spelled atonement as at-one-ment and I kept wondering why, until he parachuted in this idea that atonement meant become literally “at one” with God.

    Mmmmyeah.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X