Richard G. Petty, MD


Have you ever given in to temptation? Have you ever had a moment of weakness when that jelly donut seemed just too irresistible or you felt that it was about time to tell someone what you REALLY thought?

Sad to say I am sure that we are all guilty of that at some time or other.

What we are talking about here is self-regulation, our ability to inhibit impulses, make decisions, persist at difficult tasks and to control our emotions. We know that our ability to self-regulate is highly variable. It becomes more difficult if we are tired, stressed or working with people who drain us emotionally. There is evidence that our abilities to self-regulate can fatigue in just the same way that a muscle can get tired. It’s like having a limited amount of money, and when it’s gone it’s gone. One of the main factors that help to keep self-regulating is our level of resilience.

It is interesting that when we give in to the temptation to do something unwise, we are often unaware of it at that moment. It is only later that we feel regret.

There is some interesting new research from the University of Kentucky, that was conducted by two psychologists Suzanne Segerstrom and Lise Solberg Nes. Their work suggests that there may be a biological indicator to tell us when we are working hard at resisting temptation and consequently when we are vulnerable to doing things that we hadn’t meant to.

They hypothesized that there would be a link between variations in heart rate – heart rate variability (HRV) – and self-regulation. HRV is emerging as a very interesting tool for examining the health of the autonomic nervous system, and if disturbed, it can be a harbinger of many highly undesirable health problems. The researchers’ reasoning was that many of the same brain structures involved in self-regulation are also involved in the control of HRV.

They did a two-part study to test their hypothesis. In the first experiment participants were told that they were going to take part in test on the “physiology of food preference.” They were instructed to fast for three hours before starting the procedure. Then their HRV was monitored while they were presented with a tray of cookies, candy and carrots. The “temptation” was to give in to eating the tastier but the less healthy snack of cookies and candy.

HRV was considerably higher when people were working to resist temptation (eating carrots rather than cookies and chocolate) than when they were not. This suggested that HRV was mirroring the attempt at self-regulation.

In part two of the experiment, after resisting or giving into temptation, the experimenters had the participants attempt to complete difficult anagrams, some of which were impossible to solve. The authors measured how long participants persevered at the anagrams. As predicted, those who had exerted high self-regulation by resisting the candy and cookies were more likely to give up earlier on the task. They didn’t have any more self-control to give.

People with naturally higher levels of HRV were likely to try longer at the anagram task, whether or not they had given into “temptation.”

Now the “temptation” in this study wasn’t much, but the implications are important. There are many people – particularly those with addictions and some kinds of personality disorder – who have major problems with self-regulation. HRV feedback could turn out to be a useful way of helping people realize that their self-control may be about to fail.

It is also important to know that self-regulation is finite, but can be built by building an individual’s resilience (1,2,3,4,5).

By the way, if you have never given in to temptation, would you PLEASE share your secret?

“Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
–The Bible: Matthew 26:41

“A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is…. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.”
–C. S. Lewis (British Scholar and Novelist, 1898-1963)

“What makes resisting temptation difficult for many people is they don’t want to discourage it completely.”

–Franklin P. Jones (American Businessman, 1887-1929)

“Temptation is an irresistible force at work on a moveable body.”

Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken (American Writer and Editor, 1880-1956)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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