Bothersome biases of the brain: restraint bias

Your brain is rather adept at skewing things in a surprisingly convenient direction – in a lot of ways, it tends to make you think you’re more skilled and more aware than you actually are. Being a little bit self-assured of our beliefs and behaviours is somewhat adaptive and useful – we don’t always want to be cowering in fear and doubt about every little thing in day-to-day life, paralysed by hesitation and skeptical of our ability to succeed in matters large or small. But unfortunately, that little proclivity to over-estimate our own abilities gives rise to another little bias that holds us in thrall when it comes to many different matters, including consuming and spending. That is restraint bias.

Restraint bias is the tendency for people to assume that they’re going to be better at restraining their behaviour than they actually are. This pertains to various realms of assorted impulses, such as hunger, drug-craving and – seemingly likely – purchasing things. You’re over-confident about your ability to restrain yourself when tempted by something you want, and this can lead you to expose yourself to situations where the thing you want is conveniently available. And – surprise surprise – you often can’t resist it when it’s right there in front of you.

This has some very serious implications. For example, in a study by Nordgren and colleagues, published in the research journal Psychological Science in 2009, it was found that ex-smokers with a stronger belief in their own ability to control their impulses are much more likely to relapse into smoking again, precisely because they thought they could resist the temptation and therefore exposed themselves more willingly to the temptation – maybe they let themselves walk past the cigarette counter at a store instead of avoiding it, or maybe they too willingly went to social occasions even when they knew there would be people smoking there.

For perhaps slightly less serious implications, those wanting to curb their purchasing in general might be able to see what they need to do to avoid the consequences of restraint bias. It seems a bit self-evident, but if you don’t want to make needless purchases – don’t go into shops and don’t browse online retail sites. Don’t expose yourself to the temptations. You may think you’ll be able to resist, but the very existence of that opinion might mean you’re inclined to fail.

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