Jan 25, 2013

From the Archives

New Research Explores the Changing Shape of Temptation

It’s that time again—the end of one year and the beginning of another—when people resolve to make some changes in their lives. New Year’s resolutions are certainly nothing new—in fact, for many people, they are the same year after year. Making and breaking resolutions is something of a tradition. A new study from the Barna Group examines the temptations Americans say they most commonly struggle with—and how they resolve to deal with these moral and ethical lures. The research reveals some new—and not so new—aspects to the temptations facing today’s adults. The research was conducted in conjunction with a book project from Todd Hunter called Our Favorite Sins.

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New Temptations
Resolutions relating to technology are becoming more common—particularly those that involve spending less time on it. The research shows nearly half of Americans (44%) say they are tempted to spend too much time with media, including the Internet, television and video games. Another “new” media-related temptation is to express anger or “go off” on someone by text or email. Overall, one out of nine Americans (11%) say they often or sometimes feel tempted to do this.

Though sexual sins are nothing new, viewing pornography online continues to escalate and take on new forms as the Internet and social media evolve. Nearly one in five Americans (18%) say they are tempted to view pornography or sexually inappropriate content online. Men more commonly admit being tempted to view porn than women (28% versus 8%).

It is not surprising the most technologically oriented generation—the Millennials, or Mosaics—are more likely than average to admit to struggling with these temptations of modern technology. More than half of Millennials (53%) say they are tempted to over-use screens and one-quarter (25%) feel the temptation to use technology to express their anger at others. When it comes to viewing pornography online, Millennials are significantly more likely than other generations to admit to wrestling with this temptation: more than one quarter (27%) say they are tempted by online pornography, while only 22% of Busters, 15% of Boomers and 8% of Elders say the same.

Old Temptations
Most temptations are not so modern. Americans are still facing the same age-old deadly sins that humanity’s always wrestled with. Though, naturally, the more serious the sin, the fewer people admit to being tempted by it. Which, perhaps explains why “eating too much” is up near the top of the list of admitted temptations—more than half (55%) say they are tempted to overeat. While doing something sexually inappropriate with someone is at the bottom—less than one in ten Americans (9%) admit to this. As might be expected, the older the person, the more likely they are to struggle with overeating (though this decreases from Boomers to Elders) and the younger the person, the more likely they are to face sexual temptations (21% of Millennials admit to being tempted to sin sexually with someone verses only 11% of Busters, 5% of Boomers and 3% of Elders).

When it comes to other more “traditional” sins, about one-third of Americans admit to spending too much money (35%), one-quarter say they are tempted to gossip or say mean things about others (26%), a similar number struggle with envy or jealousy (24%), a little more than one in ten admit to being tempted to lie or cheat (12%) and about the same number say they are tempted by alcohol or drugs (11%).

Though Millennials admit to being more tempted by these things than any other generation, the answers are fairly consistent across ages. The one exception being envy or jealousy, which Millennials are significantly more likely to admit to (41% verses 29% of Busters, 19% of Boomers and 15% of Elders). This is perhaps a life-stage factor as twentysomethings try to find their place and establish a lifestyle. Though it could also point to the effects of nearly ubiquitous consumer advertising on a generation that’s been marketed to more than any previous age group.

Particularly Western Temptations
While most people may or may not consider procrastination and anxiety to be especially sinful, they are the temptations Americans are most likely to admit struggling with. Three out of five (60%) Americans say they are tempted to worry or be anxious and the same number say procrastination or putting things off is a serious temptation for them. In a similar vein, 41% of Americans say they are tempted to be lazy and not work as hard as they should. As with most of the other temptations, Millennials are more likely to admit they wrestle with these productivity-related temptations and each older generation is less likely to say so. Interestingly, when it comes to these work-related temptations, Protestants are more likely than Catholics to say they struggle with these (57% of Protestants say procrastination is a temptation and 40% admit to being lazy verses 51% and 28% of Catholics, respectively).

Such angst regarding productivity may be a result of the Puritan work ethic or of a society driven by busyness and material success. Either way, they reveal the high value Americans place on work—and the anxiety surrounding it.

Why Do People Give In?
People give in to temptations for many reasons—but it would seem most people aren’t actually sure why they do so. Half of the respondents say they don’t know what the most common reason is they give in to temptation. Of those who could identify a reason, one in five (20%) say they give in to escape or get away from “real life” for a while. Other responses given were listed by less than one in ten, but included: to feel less pain or loneliness (8%), to satisfy people’s expectations of me (7%), to take a shortcut to success (2%), for personal pleasure or because “I enjoy it” (2%), or simply as a result of human or sinful nature (1%).

Is Resistance Futile?
When facing a temptation, remarkably, most Americans (59%) say they don’t do anything specific to avoid the tempting situation. As one demonstration of the changing values undergirding temptation, nearly half of Boomers and Elders say they try to avoid giving into temptation, but just one-third of Millennials and two-fifths of Busters attempt to resist temptation. However, those who are practicing Protestants and practicing Catholics stand in contrast to this trend: a majority of both groups indicate they attempt to stand up to temptation.

Those who try to avoid “giving in” implement a variety of coping mechanisms, from simply walking away to recalling Scripture to exercising. The most common way Americans say they avoid temptation is to pray and ask God for strength—about one in five of those who resist (18%) say this is what they usually do to hold back temptation.

Other common responses include using reason to weigh the options (12%), choosing to just say “no” (10%), and simply avoiding or staying away from the situation altogether (10%). Most of the ways people say they resist temptation are fairly individualistic—only 4% of people say they talk to or call someone else when they are tempted and a mere 1% say they seek the company of others or attend a meeting. In general, Americans seem to rely on their own willpower (through reasoning, leaving the situation, thinking about something else, or focusing on positive thoughts—about 4%-5% each) or on a distracting activity (exercise, work, going for a walk, listening to music, going to bed—about 2%-3% each).

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, directed the study and offered four observations on the findings:

First, morality in America is undergoing a shift. One example of that is how temptation has gone “virtual.” It now shadows many of the digital domains of contemporary life. Nearly half of Americans admit to being tempted to use too much media and one in nine admit to expressing their anger digitally. For faith leaders, this shift underscores the importance of including technology and media as part of a broader discussion of spirituality and stewardship.

Second, Millennials are significantly more likely to admit to being lured by most of the temptations assessed in the research. Why is that? Given their stage of life, are they simply more likely to be confronted by tempting situations than are older generations? Or is it that younger adults are more comfortable admitting to them in the context of a survey? Perhaps the perceived social consequences of being honest about personal struggles are dropping—or it’s merely the angst of youth, worrying about things older adults simply no longer worry as much about. The bigger concern is if Millennials are beginning to accept these emotions as normal and not inherently wrong—as a result of media influence, normative peer behavior and shifting values. Whatever the case, a distinct moral perspective seems to be emerging among younger adults when compared to older generations. Millions of Millennials do not see temptation as something to be avoided, but rather a relatively benign feature of modern life.

Third, distinctly work-related vices top the list of Americans’ temptations. As a society, are Americans really most concerned with procrastination and productivity? People seem to be more aware of (or willing to admit to) “sins” that actually make them look better—i.e., it’s somewhat self-serving to admit procrastination or laziness because it reflects well on one’s work ethic. But few people want to admit to being envious or mean or tempted sexually. But, of the list, productivity is not exactly the most biblical pursuit—that specific “temptation” is much more reflective of American values than of core biblical themes.

Finally, only 1% of Americans of any age are able to articulate that giving in to temptation might be caused by sin. Most Americans think of temptation more as a steady stream of highs and lows that must be navigated. This reveals a gap in biblical thought on the subject of temptation among the nation’s population.

About the Research
The OmniPoll(SM) included 1,021 online interviews conducted among a representative sample of adults over the age of 18 in each of the 50 United States. The sampling error for OmniPoll(SM) is plus or minus four percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

This study used an online research panel called KnowledgePanel® based on probability sampling that covers both the online and offline populations in the U.S. The panel members are randomly recruited by telephone and by self-administered mail and web surveys. Households are provided with access to the Internet and hardware if needed. Unlike other Internet research that covers only individuals with Internet access who volunteer for research, this process uses a dual sampling frame that includes both listed and unlisted phone numbers, telephone and non-telephone households, and cell-phone-only households. The panel is not limited to current Web users or computer owners. All potential panelists are randomly selected to join the KnowledgePanel; unselected volunteers are not able to join.

Based upon U.S. Census data sources, regional and ethnic quotas were designed to ensure that the final group of adults interviewed reflected the distribution of adults nationwide and adequately represented the three primary ethnic groups within the U.S. (those groups which comprise at least 10% of the population: white, black, and Hispanic).

People are identified as having a practicing faith if they have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.

Generations: Mosaics / Millennials are a generation born between 1984 through 2002; Busters, born between 1965 and 1983; Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964; and Elders were born in 1945 or earlier.

The research was commissioned by Thomas Nelson in associated with the launch of Todd Hunter’s book Our Favorite Sins.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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