Resisting Everything Except Temptation: Evidence and an Explanation for Domain-Specific Impulsivity

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Through a series of 3 studies, the idea that temptation can be domain-specific is explored. The authors bring up the example of Tiger Woods – of how he displayed paragon level self-discipline in most areas of his life, but was found to have succumbed to temptation over a dozen times in one specific area (Holly Sampson, etc…)

The first study showed that levels of self-control in one specific area do not directly correlate with levels of self-control in another. That is, people have a global level of self-control, and, for each domain, a domain-specific level of self-control. It is that combination that determines whether or not a person is able to fight off temptation.

This and the next two studies found that individuals on average, across all domains, have similar levels of self-control; however, in specific domains, may have drastically different levels of impulse control.

The second study showed that most of the difference in impulse control between different domains can be explained by the difference in their levels of temptation. While this result may seem intuitive, the hypothesis that differences in impulse control are driven by differences in perceived harm (e.g. it's not so harmful to sleep around, but very harmful to eat hamburgers), was largely disproven – perceived harm had a statistically significant but still small effect.

The third study showed that for the same person, levels of temptation vary across particular domains – that even a chronic procrastinator or shopaholic could have tremendous control over their impulses to sleep around.

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Study Details

Hypothesis: Domain-general impulsivity is explained by how tempting individuals find various behaviors and in perception of their long-term harm.

Study 1:

Hypothesis: Impulsive behavior is multidimensional.

Method: 293 college students answered a series of questionnaires.

Measures: Domain-specific impulsive behavior, domain-general self control, health and positive relations, and facets of impulsivity.

The health and positive relations questionnaire asked participants to indicate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, ‘Physically, I feel great' and ‘I have lots of friends'.


Self-control was negatively correlated with domain-specific impulsivity (r=-.26 to -.63).

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Impulsive behavior in most domains correlated with impulsivity in another (e.g. impulsive work behavior with impulsive academic behavior) (average r=-.25).

Domain specific impulsivity provided incremental predictive validity over domain general self-control (e.g. impulsivity in domain x plus self-control predicted impulsivity in domain x better than self-control alone).

Individuals varied much more in their impulsivity across specific domains than in their average impulsivity between one another (79% vs. 21% of total variance).

Study 1B:

Replication of Study 1

Method: 1,486 adults filled out a series of questionnaires.

Measures & Results: Similar to Study 1.

Study 2:

Hypothesis: The within-individual differences in domain-specific impulsive behavior can be largely explained by domain-specific differences in their subjective temptation and perceived harm.

Method: 353 college students completed a series of surveys.

Measures: Domain Specific Impulsitivty (DSIS), Domain Specific Impulsivity-Temptation (DSIS-T), and Domain Specific Impulsivity-Harm (DSIS-H).

Results: Replication of study 1 + additional findings

DSIS-T was a much better predictor of DSIS than DSIS-H (40% of unique within-individual variance in impulsive behavior vs. 2%). Both provided incremental predictive validity over domain specific self-control.

Study 3:

Hypothesis: Temptation is highly domain-specific.

Method: 419 adults were recruited from an assortment of domain specific impulsivity groups on Facebook (e.g. binge eating group, experts of procrastination, I hate exercise, etc…). The 6 domains were: work, food, spending, drugs and alcohol, and exercise.

Measures: Similar to study 2.

Results: Replication of study 2 + additional findings.

“With each domain, the target group was more tempted to engage in domain specific impulsive behavior relative to the other groups, but not more tempted overall.”

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Tsukayama, E., Duckworth, A. L., & Kim, B. (2012). Resisting everything except temptation: Evidence and an explanation for domain-specific impulsivity. European Journal of Personality26, 318-334.

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