Devil on your shoulder: The role of temptation in strategy

Today I want to introduce you to a concept I call “choice gravity”, but which you might know by a slightly more conventional and spicy word: temptation.

What does temptation have to do with strategy?  One hell of a lot really (hell, in a sense, being the operative word here).

How so?

Well, I’m sure you’ve heard people say that “strategy is all about choices”, and this is of course true.  Where we end up is the result of our choices, or, in the words of Camus, “life is the sum of our choices”.  Business of course is the same thing.  You make good choices, you get good results.  Strategy is the method by which you determine those choices.

Bearing this in mind then, if we are to think about strategy we must also think about choice; or more specifically the dynamics of choice, and how the decision making process really works.

As we shall see it doesn’t operate in quite the way we think it does, as the theory of choice gravity (aka temptation) will illustrate.

Imagine for a moment that you are faced with a basic everyday choice: do I eat this piece of cake, or don’t I?  The way we imagine choice to work presents this as a simple decision between option A (eat the cake) or option B (don’t eat the cake).  Either of these is a legitimate choice, one that we might arrive at through thoughtful (or “strategic”) deliberation.

But in reality things don’t quite work like that.

You see choice doesn’t take place on a level playing field.  These two choices are not, in a sense, equal, but rather “loaded”.  Choice A, to eat the cake, has gravity to it that choice B, to decline, does not.  We are drawn – sometimes irresistibly – to eat the cake.  It beckons to us, it sucks us in.

Because of this we might argue that the choice to eat the cake isn’t, in fact, a choice at all.  It is instead what happens when we decline to make a choice.  It is what happens when we “give in”, “submit”, or “let go”, and allow ourselves to be swept away by the gravity of eating the cake.

(Understand of course that I am using the cake thing as a basic illustration – naturally in the real world there may be some “cake scenarios” where it is a legitimate choice to eat the cake – I’m sure you get my point)

If you want to picture this dynamic visually, compare the image of a crossroads with the image of a river.

We think that choice works like a crossroads, where we reach the moment of decision and stand static in the centre, before deciding to go left of right.  In reality however it is more like we are in a river, being swept along towards a waterfall in the distance.  Using the cake analogy, choosing not to eat the cake represents the physical effort of grabbing a branch, and pulling ourselves out of the water.  It’s active and deliberate.  On the other hand choosing to go ahead and eat the cake is simply submitting to the flow and allowing ourselves to be carried towards the waterfall.  It is passive.

Although we don’t tend to understand this idea consciously, in everyday language we actually understand it quite well.

We often talk about the idea of “giving in” to a certain choice, or we might say of someone, “wow, they really let themselves go” in some way or another.  Note here that we are not saying that they made the “active empowered choice” to end up that way.  We are instead saying that they declined to make a choice, and let the river carry them where it may.  The phrase “I got carried away” also has a similar meaning.

Not making choices then, doesn’t mean you sit statically, and do nothing.  It instead means that you make horrible choices, because the gravity makes them for you.

This of course is where we see that this idea of choice gravity – the almost irresistible pull that certain options have, sucking us towards them – is the same as temptation.  In our highly individualistic age of “you do you”, and all that stuff, we don’t acknowledge this dynamic.  We act as if whatever we choose is legitimate because, after all, we chose it, and we are captains of our ship.  But as the theory of choice gravity demonstrates, all choices are not equal – and in fact many choices are not really choices at all.  Thus they are not the hallmarks of an empowered individual, but rather a disempowered individual.

A few obvious examples:

  • Food: naturally if you submit wholly to choice gravity when it comes to what you eat, you’re going to end up extremely unhealthy.  This is not a choice, it’s declining to choose.
  • Drugs: would we ever say that a heroin addict “chooses” to have another hit as a freely empowered personal choice?  Of course not, again it’s an act of submission, rather than self-willed expression.
  • Anger: it’s not only our actions where choice gravity applies, but our thoughts too.  We can be “swept away” with anger, or allow the “red mist” to descend, once again showing that anger is not something we choose, but something that chooses us.

What I want to hammer home here is that many choices that we think are freely made by us as autonomous individuals are not in fact really made by us at all.

We have been dragged to them, and we have submitted.  We tell ourselves we are “doing what we want”, but we may really be doing what we have been told to want – something which feels the same, but is not.

I’m sure you’ve all seen a cartoon where the character has a little devil pop-up on their shoulder, and whisper encouragement in their ear to do something not in their best interests.  This, frankly, is a great illustration of this principle, because it shows that the gravitational pull towards certain actions doesn’t come from within us, but rather comes from outside – thus making the choice not in fact “ours”.  Continuing the demonic analogy, “hell”, we might say, is where we end up if we submit to choice gravity every time we are faced with a decision.  It is what lies at the end of the river, at the bottom of the waterfall.  It need not be another realm; it can be a place very much of this world – as many people have “gone with the flow” to excess have discovered.

Anyway, I realise this is all getting a little “self-helpy”, so bringing it back to strategy, what is the utility of this concept?

Well, in short we must realise that choice gravity doesn’t only exist in stereotypically tempting situations (like eating cake or whatever) – it can come to bear in any decision, including business ones.

As a rule of thumb we might say that any time you feel yourself strongly drawn to one choice or another, that’s a pretty good sign that this may be occurring.

Your wanting to do something is not an indication that you should do it; it is in fact more likely an indication that you shouldn’t do it.

It is the draw of the river, the devil on your shoulder, the song of the Siren, or whatever analogy you care to mention.  In the business world this gravity is likely to come from things such as:

  • Peer pressure: the mimetic force, as we’ve discussed before, is irresistibly strong.  We want to copy, we want to do the same as our competitors, we want to do the things that have been seen before, and follow fashion.  This can pull you towards such decisions, which are naturally often un-strategic.
  • Conflict avoidance: none of us want to be put into an awkward situation, to have to explain ourselves, or make our case to a hostile audience.  So naturally we will be drawn by the option which avoids this, supported no doubt by some impeccable rationalisation that convinces us the easy choice is in fact the “smart” choice.
  • Ego: we all want to be proven right, for our ideas to be the winners, for our personal biases to be indulged – and this often leads to us throwing good money after bad.  The path that flatters us will often feel like the right one; but again that pleasant feeling is a warning not an endorsement.

I wound’t go so far as to say that “if you want to do something, then don’t do it”.  Clearly there are scenarios where our desires align with the good.  All I’m saying is that we must be wary of this sensation, and to interrogate it thoroughly before acting on it.

What we certainly must not do is what we routinely encouraged to do: to view our desire (choice gravity) as a sign of legitimacy.  You are not “doing you”, you are not being “empowered”; on the contrary you are most likely doing the bidding of others – of advertisers, of your peers, or of the darker sides of your nature.

There can be no serious discussion of choice without the acknowledgment of temptation.  And so there can be serious discussion of strategy without it either.

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