Temptation

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Oscar Wilde may have said it best: I can resist anything except temptation. For example, yesterday, I overheard a blowhard bragging about his job and couldn’t resist tweeting it — though fortunately I did stop at just one, as my kinder self prevailed.

There is a famous experiment called the marshmallow test. It goes like this. You tell a 4-year old that if he doesn’t eat the marshmallow on his plate he can have two of them in an hour. You then leave the room while watching secretly. Reason would suggest that the child should wait. Realism would argue that most won’t but many should. In fact, given enough time, they all eat the marshmallow. But some are able to resist longer than others. Believe it or not — that exercise of self-control is a decent measure of success later in life. Now that is a true Blink moment.

Temptation — the urge to do something we know we shouldn’t for moral reasons or for reasons of self-interest plagues us all almost all the time. There are good reasons for this of course. Temptation is wired right into our unconscious brains. Evolution made sure of that. If you see food, eat it; if an opportunity to mate comes along, take it; if you can exert status over another, do it. Those who gave into temptation usually had a better chance to pass on their genes.

Now you know why America is plagued with obesity. And right wing politics. Hunh?

Well, one way of looking at the current rise of the right in America (and around the world) and the dismal response of the left to its assaults is to understand the call for ‘common sense’. When a politician appeals to common sense, he is appealing to that same instinctual part of the brain that means the ‘bet you can’t eat just one’ gamble almost always pays off for the manufacturer of potato chips.

Quite literally, we might say that all ‘gut’ reactions are the same. ‘It feels good’ and ‘it feels true‘ arise from all the same biases that allowed us to survive in caveman days: in-group allegiance, confirmation bias, optimism bias — that is the belief that I am special and there for privileged and of course hyper reaction to low-risk, high danger situations. The last one is particularly perverse.

The chance of meeting a saber-tooth tiger was fairly low but the outcome of doing so was very bed — so we tend to be very afraid of calamitous things (like Ebola, terrorism, or murder by strangers) even if there is almost no chance of us actually encountering it. Meanwhile we aren’t afraid of things that are much more likely to kill us — such as getting in a car or even smoking. Tigers persuade us in the way statistics never will.

This would be fine if we still lived like cavemen —cold, afraid, short-lived, hungry, and mostly lonely (though not, as Hobbes said, solitary) —but we don’t. We live in modern societies with everything we need. More than enough for all of us.

Frankly I’m not tempted to go back.

But that’s ten minutes.

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