Monday, November 9, 2009

You Will Eat That Oreo: The Empathy Gap and Restraint Bias

An entrepreneur often needs to exercise self-control (for example, in order to engage with boring but necessary tasks.) How good are you at predicting how well your future self will follow through and consistently exercise self-control?

One thing to take into account is the hot-cold empathy gap: we tend to consistently underestimate how much effect emotional state (such as being tempted, or being bored) has on decisions. The restraint bias is a more specific phenomenon where we overestimate how well we will exercise self-control in the future. The restraint bias is a logical consequence of the hot-cold empathy gap: when not tempted, we underestimate how much our future emotional state (such as desire, craving, curiosity, or boredom) will impact our future decisions when a temptation presents itself. The restraint bias may also be further fueled by some of our positive illusions.

Some examples:

Recent research is starting to confirm that the restraint bias can be harmful:
Recovering smokers with more inflated impulse-control beliefs exposed themselves to more temptation, which led to higher rates of relapse 4 months later. (The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of Self-Restraint Promotes Impulsive Behavior)
When calibrating how well you will resist future temptations, I advise looking at the following benchmarks:
  • How well have you resisted similar temptations in the past?
  • How often do other people resist similar temptations?
If the answer to these questions is 'poorly', consider taking steps to bind your future actions, such as:
  • remove temptations from your environment
  • make a public commitment to achieve your goals
  • make a bet with a friend that you will follow through
  • install tools on your computer to help reduce time-wasting activities
Tomorrow: a discussion of hyperbolic discounting