Survey hints at the temptation to lie about temptation

Survey hints at the temptation to lie about temptation January 8, 2013

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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