The power to resist temptation has been extolled by philosophers, psychologists, teachers, coaches, and mothers. Anyone with advice on how you should live your life has surely spoken to you of its benefits. It is the path to the good life, professional and personal satisfaction, social adjustment and success, performance under pressure, and the best way for any child to avoid a penetrating stare and a cold dinner. Of course, this assumes that our natural urges are a thing to be resisted – that there is a devil inside, luring you to cheat, offend, err, and annoy. New research has begun to question this assumption.

 A new brain imaging study by Josh Greene and Joe Paxton at Harvard University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that what separates the well-behaved from the poorly-behaved might not be the ability to control your temptations but rather what kind of temptations you have. For example, foregoing the opportunity for short-term gain and satisfaction, whether it is a delicious slice of tiramisu or that wallet stuffed with cash you stumbled across in the empty parking lot, will depend more on the nature of your automatic urges than your ability to control them.

Greene and Paxton were interested in why people behave honestly when confronted with the opportunity to anonymously cheat for personal gain. They considered two possible explanations. First, there is the “Will” hypothesis: in order to behave honestly people must actively resist the temptation to cheat. In other words, returning the wallet depends on your ability to stifle your desire to take the cash and buy yourself something nice. Alternatively, there is the “Grace” hypothesis: honest behavior results from the absence of temptation. Returning the wallet requires no particular ability to control your treacherous urges – the urge simply isn’t there.

These two hypotheses make competing predictions regarding the brain regions activated when acting honestly as well as the time it should take participants to decide to act honestly. If “Will” is correct then people who choose to act honestly should exhibit heightened activity in brain regions responsible for cognitive control (presumably resulting from the struggle to ignore immediate desires). But if “Grace” is right then no such increase should occur. Furthermore, people should take a longer time to decide to act honestly if doing so requires a conscious act of “Will,” but a relatively shorter time to act if all you need is a bit of “Grace.”

In order to test these possibilities the researchers measured neural activity in an fMRI machine while participants played a computerized game wherein they could gain money by predicting the outcome of coin flips. Correctly guess heads or tails, you get some cash. In one condition, participants recorded their predictions before seeing any of the flips, precluding the opportunity to cheat. In the other condition, participants were rewarded based on self-reported accuracy after the flips, and therefore could fudge their predictions in accordance with the outcome of the flip. I got 100 percent correct, Mr. Experimenter, must be my lucky day!

Consistent with the “Grace” hypothesis, those who acted honestly (who guessed wrong and self-reported as much) showed no increased activity in control-related areas relative to others who guessed wrong but did not have the opportunity to cheat. Honest reporting of scores, then, didn’t require will-power, these participants simply did not feel the urge to cheat. Reaction time data further supported “Grace” showing that participants who acted honestly took no longer to do so, on average, when they had the opportunity to cheat than when they did not. The authors suggest that these findings demonstrate the human capacity to, at least temporarily, achieve a state of “moral grace” – a state devoid of selfish temptation.

But what good does this state serve? Why would we be averse, or even indifferent, to cheating when we could benefit from it? Perhaps because our automatic responses have evolved in social environments where self-interested behavior in the short-term has not always lead to personal gains over the long-term. Gaining a reputation as a cheat would be a one-way ticket to ostracism. Having intuitions sensitive to equity and the needs of others would promote the formation and maintenance of cooperative relationships that would ultimately be of benefit to the individual.

Greene and Paxton’s findings fit nicely with this idea, as well as past research showing that many of our intuitions regarding equity/fairness actually promote prosocial behavior, and we overcome them at our peril. This is not only because of the positive social consequences they confer, but also because the cognitive processes we use to overcome them can be susceptible to bias, motivated reasoning, justification and rationalization.

This is not to say that self-control is an impediment to social life. Clearly certain desires and urges are better off ignored. The psychologist Dan Gilbert has found that participants, when given the choice between receiving $50 now or $60 a month from now, prefer the immediate reward. The strong desire for cash in hand trumps the thought that you’d be better off if you waited for the higher sum. In this case, if it weren’t for those pesky urges, life would be much easier – you could more effectively plan for the long-term. But what’s also clear is that many of our urges guide us towards decision and actions that, while contrary to short-term goals, are in our long-term interests. Given Greene and Paxton’s findings, it seems that at least in some situations the best way to consider the future is by not considering it at all.

Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section.