Avoid Temptation With the Science of Cheating

The gist: When you think about cheating, you probably think about relationships. But temptation comes in many forms. There’s a science-based solution to avoid cheating and maintain an impeccable character.

We’re all looking for ways to be better. We want to treat our loved ones better. Or eat healthier. Or work harder and be less lazy. We want to maintain the highest character so people trust us.

But that’s hard, and cheating is easy.

Think of the last time you found yourself saying, “This is a bad idea, but I’m doing it anyway.”

The temptation to sway from our most virtuous path is sometimes overwhelming. When you’re faced with it, what do you do?

Do you…

  • Stay on the path and honor your significant other or give into a one night stand?
  • Eat the salad you packed for lunch or cheat and go out for fast food?
  • Work on your important project or wander around the internet?
  • Struggle through the day without nicotine, or smoke that cigarette and start all over?

Sometimes, you succeed and take a step forward. Others, you fail and fall back.

What is the driver of these successes and failures? How can you predict when your willpower will carry you and when it will fail you?

If you know this, you can make the right decision every time and feel confident in your ability to resist temptation when it’s staring you right in the face.

That knowledge is so valuable, that it’s been studied by psychological researchers extensively. They’ve found there are concrete steps you can take to both reduce your exposure to temptation and avoid it when it appears.

Focusing on Temptation Leads to Failure

In the 90s, researcher Rowland Miller studied a handful of men with partners by asking them how committed they were to their relationships.

Then, he had them look at pictures of attractive women, and recorded how long they spent investigating the photos.

Two months later, he followed up to ask, “Are you still in your relationship?”

There was no correlation between how committed the men said they were before and their current relationship status. But a correlation was found elsewhere.

Men who spent the least time inspecting the pictures were more likely to report that, yes, they were still in their relationship and still happy.1

Sounds like a classic case of social comparison. Miller noted in his research, “Even if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, happy gardeners will be less likely to notice.”

Consider also the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.

Children were given a marshmallow and told if they don’t eat it now, they’ll get even more marshmallows later.

The kids who were most successful at avoiding the overwhelming temptation were the ones who looked away. They focused their attention elsewhere.

Your Brain Chemistry Affects Your Willpower

Fast forward to 2011 when Loran Nordgren and Eileen Chou—psychological researchers at Northwestern University—followed up on Rowland Miller’s study.2

They devised their own experiment with the central question question: Can your visceral state3 determine how likely you are to give into temptations that erode your relationship?

The answer: Yes, absolutely.

They gathered a group of men in relationships and put them in two groups. Group 1 was shown 10 minutes of an erotic film. Group 2 was shown 10 minutes of a fashion show—a comparatively PG alternative.

Then they split the groups up again and showed each man pictures of attractive women.

Here’s the twist. One group was told nothing about the women in the pictures—they were just a bunch of good-looking strangers. The other group was told the pictures were of women who had just enrolled in their classes. This gave the subjects the impression that they might actually meet these women.

The men who were in a hot visceral state—the guys who’d just watched porn—spent considerably more time “inspecting the neighbor’s garden.” The greater the temptation, the more time they devoted to the destructive task.

When you’re in an agitated or hot mood, you’re more likely to give into temptation.

Now here’s where it really gets interesting.

The guys who watched the fashion show—the ones in a cold visceral state—spent less time focusing on the attractive women in the pictures the greater the temptation became. It was like they had a superpower allowing them to pull away the greater their temptation grew.

What does this mean? To avoid temptation and enjoy a happy and fruitful relationship—or to stay on track with any goal personally or professionally—you need to keep yourself in a cold visceral state when temptation comes calling.

Keep Yourself Cool When Temptation Gets Hot

The science of avoiding temptation doesn’t just apply to relationships. The same studies have been done on smokers and others trying to stick to good habits.

To lead a happy life accomplishing your goals and building strong habits4, you have to keep yourself in a cool visceral state—maintain a calm mood. That means avoiding situations that would get you worked up just before being confronted by temptation.

When you understand your triggers and how they affect your decisions, you’ll be able to keep your head clear as temptation and cheating—at school, home, or work—rears its ugly head.

  • If you’re going out with attractive colleagues, don’t expose yourself to anything with a strong sexual charge before you meet them.
  • If you’ve been craving a cigarette all day, don’t go to the convenience store where packs are on display on the way home even if you need something else there.
  • If you’re hungry and trying to make good food choices, don’t go to a restaurant. Even better, don’t allow yourself to get hot by becoming too hungry without a plan.
  • If you’re feeling upset about money, avoid places like department stores or Amazon where it’s incredibly tempting to spend it.
  • Leaving on a business trip? Try not to argue with your partner before you go.

These are the kinds of life automation rules that will help you make good decisions even when you’re stressed out or frustrated.

Whatever temptation it is you face, find the triggers that agitate you into a hot visceral state, and focus on avoiding those. When you do, you’ll automatically start to beat your temptations because you’ll avoid them before they have a chance to derail your plans.

Do This Right Now

Take what you’ve just learned and make a plan to implement it right now. Think of one temptation you regularly face (and fail to avoid) and then think of what actions or situations tend to put you in the hot visceral state that makes it so hard to do the right thing.

You might find, especially for the biggest temptations, that there is more than one trigger.

Now think of some things you can do to avoid those triggers in the first place. This will probably take a few tries to get right. But that’s a small price to pay for what amounts to a life of more respect—both for yourself and from others who see you as an example.


  1. Source: Inattentive And Contented: Relationship Commitment And Attention To Alternatives
  2. Source: The Push And Pull Of Temptation: The Bidirectional Influence Of Temptation On Self-Control
  3. “Visceral state” is a fancy science word for “mood.”
  4. And, apparently, stay married and quit smoking