The risks of being controlled by one’s impulses

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Impulses are defined as highly adaptive mechanisms that provide information about the state of one’s body and drive a person to behave accordingly, with the aim of satisfying one’s physical needs.

For this reason, temptations are defined as those behaviours aimed at satisfying these needs that may conflict with one’s long-term goals, in some cases sabotaging them altogether.

The connection between impulses and control has been studied extensively and a correlation has been found between perceived resistance to temptation and exposure to it. Many studies have shown that strong self-control leads to greater exposure to temptation, which in turn encourages impulsive behaviour. Conversely, those who believe they cannot resist will tend to avoid certain situations or environments and will be less likely to fall into certain behaviours.

This effect is called restraint bias and is the tendency to overestimate one’s ability to control impulses. This phenomenon occurs in hunger, pain or fatigue, but also in addiction to substances such as smoking or alcohol.

The empathy gap

This bias is closely related to another cognitive error, the empathy gap effect. This effect consists in the tendency to underestimate the influence of an impulsive state (such as anger, hunger, fatigue), or ‘hot’ state, on one’s decisions and behaviour, when this impulsive state is not present, i.e. one is in a ‘cold’ state. For example, one considers the same work to be less tiring when one is rested than when one is tired. This is due to the fact that one remembers well the intensity of this impulsive state and why it happened, whereas one has difficulty remembering the feeling.

In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, the three researchers, Nordgren, van Harreveld and van der Pligt, hypothesised that the inability to assess the motivational strength of the impulse leads to an overestimation of one’s ability to control the temptation, hence the moderation bias. Specifically, they hypothesised that people in the absence of an impulsive state overestimated their ability to manage impulses, whereas people in an impulsive state were able to take a more realistic view of their abilities. They then went on to test their hypothesis by conducting a series of experiments.

The effects of fatigue

In a first experiment, the researchers investigated how fatigue affected the curriculum of some students. In a group of seventy-two participants, they went to study their perception of control over fatigue after having them do a strenuous or non-strenuous activity and then had them draw up a study plan for the following semester.

Their hypothesis was that the more rested group of students would claim to have more control over their fatigue and that this would lead them to plan their studies less cautiously, piling on the work at the end of the semester. Conversely, the more fatigued group would report less control and would draw up a more balanced study plan, spreading their work over the whole semester.

The task for the two groups was to memorise a random set of numbers. For the more rested group, the task would last two minutes, while the more fatigued group would work for twenty minutes.

At the end of the test, a correlation, albeit not a very strong one, was found between overestimated perception of control and a concentrated study plan at the end of the semester. The fatigued students would also have left 11% less work in the last week of study than the rested students.

Hunger and smoking addiction

In subsequent experiments, the researchers investigated the connection that moderation bias has with hunger and smoking addiction.

They tested the correlation with hunger by standing at the entrance of a diner and promising those who participated in the study a prize of €4 if they returned a snack of their choice a week later. They then divided the participants into two groups: those who were leaving the diner after eating and those who were entering to satisfy their hunger. In accordance with the empathy gap effect, the satiated participants reported having more control over their hunger than those who had not eaten, so they would have been more likely to get the prize. But one week later, only 39% of the full participants had returned the snack, compared to 60.5% of the hungry participants. Those who were hungry, i.e. those in a ‘hot’ state, were better able to judge their ability to resist temptation and, on average, had bought a less tempting snack than the other group of participants.

In the experiment with smokers, however, the researchers investigated how moderation bias could explain why quitters relapsed after the cessation of withdrawal symptoms, rather than during. Their hypothesis was that after the withdrawal symptoms disappeared, people tended to overestimate their ability to resist the temptation to smoke, and then overexpose themselves to situations and contexts that would cause them to relapse.

Fifty-five participants were brought together, all of whom had stopped smoking for at least three weeks. They were given a questionnaire asking them to assess their ability to control their impulses and how exposed they were to temptation during their daily routine. As in the other cases, those who were more confident would be more exposed to certain contexts that could induce relapse. Four months after the first questionnaire, their smoking status was analysed, i.e. whether they had quit or started again, and how much.

Thirty-three percent of participants had stopped smoking, while 18% smoked once or twice a week. The remaining 49% smoked much more frequently, ranging from one or two cigarettes to one or more packs per day. While no correlation was found between self-confidence and smoking status after four months, it was shown that greater exposure to temptation due to increased perceived confidence promotes relapse.

The importance of the concept of ‘powerlessness’ in the face of impulses

It is clear, therefore, how a distorted perception of impulse control affects people’s strategies for dealing with temptation. The researchers therefore raised another question in the discussion of their article: why do people voluntarily engage in behaviours that may develop an addiction, despite knowing it? Moderation bias suggests that the answer may be that people still believe they will be able to resist addiction because they think, often wrongly, that they are strong enough to control their impulses.

Conversely, a more realistic perception of one’s own capabilities may lead to being psychologically more ready, such as when expecting a negative outcome or the worst possible outcome.

Two of the cornerstones of combating alcoholism are admitting one’s powerlessness in the face of alcohol and the belief that an alcoholic will always remain an alcoholic. This is because, when the urge fails, a person may delude himself that he will be able to resist the temptation better, returning to take more risks.

Carlo Sordini


  1. Nordgren, Loran & van Harreveld, Frenk & Pligt, Joop. (2009). The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of Self-Restraint Promotes Impulsive Behavior. Psychological science. 20. 1523-8. 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02468.x.
  2. Loewenstein, G. (1996). Out of control: Visceral influences on behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 65, 272–292.
  3. Shepperd, J.A., Findley-Klein, C., Kwavnick, K.D., Walker, D., & Perez, S. (2000). Bracing for loss. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 620–634.