The Reverse Psychology of Temptation

“Oh this is delicious, Peter. The ice cream is homemade, the perfect consistency, And this lemon cookie on top, mmmmm. Are you sure you don’t want some?”

Tom* smiled devilishly as he reached across the table to hand me a spoon. Tom is my client, the CEO of a $900 million company. I was in San Francisco to run a two-day offsite meeting for him and his leadership team. We’ve worked together for almost a decade and he’s become a close, trusted friend.

We were at Greens in San Francisco, a vegetarian restaurant Tom had chosen because he had seen their cookbooks on my shelf in New York and knew I would love it.

Tom was teasing me because earlier in the meal I told him I was off sugary desserts. There’s no medical reason or necessity for me to avoid sugar; I simply feel better when I’m not eating it. But he’s seen me eat large quantities of sugary treats in the past and knows my willpower can be weak.

“It does look good and I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” I said, “but you’re on your own. There’s no chance I’m eating any.”

“C’mon Peter, these desserts are healthy, and all we’ve eaten is vegetables anyway. It would be a real missed opportunity if you didn’t at least taste the desserts at Greens; it’s your favorite kind of food.”

He took a bite from a second dessert he had ordered just to tantalize me — a berry pie — and rolled his eyes in mock ecstasy, “Ooh, this is good. And it’s basically just fruit. Go ahead, have just a bite.” As he edged it closer to my side of the table, the red caramelized berries dripped juice over the side of the plate.

The reasons to taste the desserts were compelling. Even putting aside the fact that Tom is a client and there’s always some pressure to please clients, his rationalizations were the same rationalizations that were floating inside my head.

But here’s the interesting thing: the more he pressured me to eat dessert, the stronger my resolve not to eat dessert grew.

My reaction caught me off guard and offered me a surprising strategy for helping people sustain change: if you want to help someone stick to a decision, try tempting him out of it. In other words, enticing someone to break a commitment can be a great tool to help him maintain his commitment.

Here’s why: Going into the dinner, I had one reason I didn’t want to eat dessert. But Tom’s taunting gave me another reason: I was embarrassed to break my commitment in the face of his teasing. I didn’t want to be the guy who caves in to peer pressure.

Maybe it’s just my rebellious nature, but when my wife Eleanor reminds me that I don’t really want to eat that cookie in my hand, I quickly try to stuff it in my mouth before she can stop me. Even though I’ve asked her to help me, my feeling is, “I’ll eat whatever I want to eat!” It becomes a fun game, a challenge. Somehow, when she’s helping me, I become a little less accountable.

But when Tom was egging me on, the tables were turned. I was fully responsible for my own actions. I knew I was on my own. And I also knew that the stakes were high; If I ate the dessert I would never live it down. The brilliance of the psychology is that Tom made it more fun — and free-spirited — to not eat dessert. And successfully withstanding his pressure built my confidence in my commitment.

This approach has broad application. Do you have a colleague who wants to speak less in meetings? Try egging her on. Someone who wants to leave work at a decent time? Prod him at 5pm with his incomplete to-do list. A spouse who’s trying to stay off email at night? Dangle her BlackBerry in front of her at bedtime.

There are two conditions necessary to make this an effective strategy and keep it good-natured: The commitment the person wants to make needs to be self-motivated and the person doing the ribbing needs to be a trusted friend who doesn’t abuse positional power.

What happens when the prodding is over? It turns out that the motivating impact of that dinner has lasted long after dinner was done. Usually, offsite meetings are particularly dangerous for me as far as sugar consumption is concerned. But this time I didn’t eat any sugar during the meeting and I haven’t eaten any since. It’s been a month since I stopped eating sugar — a month that included a week-long vacation with my wife Eleanor in France — a month filled with opportunities to eat delicious-looking sugary treats.

But each time I’m tempted, I pause, remembering that dinner with Tom, and I think “if I didn’t eat dessert then — with all that pressure and temptation and lots of good reasons to eat dessert — why would I eat it now?”

*Name changed


  1. Brittany says:

    Very interesting point! I feel so motivated when someone tells me I can’t do something and will never reach my goals. I always want to prove them wrong and that is a true motivator for success. Thank you for another great article!

  2. Brent Moon says:

    A really fascinating point! I feel so motivated when someone tells me I can’t do something and will never reach my goals in cluster rush.

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