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Restraint Bias


Explanations > Theories > Restraint Bias

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



We believe we can control natural urges more than we can in practice. Furthermore, his belief is strengthened by:

  • Weak 'evidence' that we can overcome urges.
  • Not feeling the urge at the moment.
  • Not remembering how powerful the urge can be.

Urges are enhanced by the availability of stimulants, such as the urge to eat being increased by the availability of food. People who are exhibiting restraint bias and believe they can withstand urges are more likely to allow temptation to be put in their way. Optimism about our ability to control urges is ill-founded, it seems.

The underlying problem is in the different mental state between thinking about being in an urge state and actually being in the urge state. This has been called the 'cold-to-hot empathy gap' and indicates how different emotional thinking really is and how it can easily override rational thought.


Loran Nordgren et al (2009) investigated this inner battle. They first gave one group of students an easy memory task and another a hard one. Those on the easy task subsequently rated their ability to overcome mental fatigue more highly. A serious impact of this effect was that the also thought they could leave more of their coursework until the last week of term.

In a second study, students arriving or leaving the college cafeteria ranked seven snack bars from least favourite to favourite and then chose one to take away. If they brought it back uneaten the next week, they could keep the bar and also win $4. The leavers, who had already eaten and whose self-perception of restraint ability was therefore higher, were more likely to choose their first or second favourite snack bar, and were more likely to eat it during the following week.

In a third experiment some were given a fake self-control test then asked to watch the movie "Coffee and Cigarettes" whilst not smoking. They were promised a greater cash reward the more difficult they made the challenge for themselves. Those given good results on the test chose more tempting challenges, such as holding the cigarette in their hand rather than having it on the desk. They were also more likely to give in to that temptation.

In a further study with people in a 'quit smoking' programme, those who claimed more impulse control were found to be more like to relapse.


I make a new year's resolution to eat less. Later that same day, I'm really hungry think 'Just one won't make much difference and will make me feel so much better.' Later, I find myself in the kitchen with my hand in the cookie jar without really realizing how I got there.

So What?

Using it

If you want to help someone to stop doing something, work on them when they have the urge to do it, not when they can make easy commitments.

To persuade people of something, you can put temptation in their way -- they will be less able to defend against it than they think they can.


If you want to give up something, do not put temptation in your way.

See also

Availability Heuristic


Nordgren, van Harreveld and van der Pligt (2009)


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