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Why Do We Return to Bad Habits

Restraint bias: a tendency for people to overestimate their capacity for impulse control. 

“Restraint bias offers insight into how our erroneous beliefs about self-restraint promote impulsive behavior,” says lead author Loran F. Nordgren of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “It helps us to understand puzzles in addiction research such as why recovered addicts often relapse after they have broken free of withdrawal symptoms.” The lesson? When you’ve made progress avoiding your indulgences and that little voice in your head tells you it’s okay to start exposing yourself to temptation again —ignore it.

Abstract from the actual study:

Four studies examined how impulse-control beliefs—beliefs regarding one’s ability to regulate visceral impulses, such as hunger, drug craving, and sexual arousal—influence the self-control process. The findings provide evidence for a restraint bias: a tendency for people to overestimate their capacity for impulse control. This biased perception of restraint had important consequences for people’s self-control strategies. Inflated impulse-control beliefs led people to overexpose themselves to temptation, thereby promoting impulsive behavior. In Study 4, for example, the impulse-control beliefs of recovering smokers predicted their exposure to situations in which they would be tempted to smoke. 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 offers unique insight into how erroneous beliefs about self-restraint promote impulsive behavior.

Source: Scientific America and The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of Self-Restraint Promotes Impulsive Behavior (Psychological Science)

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