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Forbidden Fruit Theory and Why Prohibition Often Fails

Forbidden fruit is a term that comes from the Biblical book of Genesis. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve had an abundance of food in the Garden of Eden but they simply couldn't resist the one piece of fruit that was forbidden. The phrase forbidden fruit refers to an indulgence or pleasure that is thought to be illicit in some way.

In Psychology and Economics, forbidden fruit theory (aka forbidden fruit hypothesis or the forbidden fruit effect) is the idea that anything forbidden becomes even more desirable. Our brains pay more attention to things we aren't allowed to have.

Forbidden fruit theory (aka forbidden fruit hypothesis or the forbidden fruit effect) - anything forbidden becomes even more desirable

Forbidden fruit theory (aka forbidden fruit hypothesis or the forbidden fruit effect) - anything forbidden becomes even more desirable

Possible Effects of Forbidden Fruit Theory

Heavy drinking and porn use tend to be highest among groups where consumption is either illegal or considered immoral. Tobacco companies actually use the forbidden fruit effect to market their products to teenagers.


About 32% of American college students under the age of 21 are heavy drinkers compared to 24% of those who have reached the legal drinking age. In England, about 18% of individuals in the 16-24 age range are heavy drinkers, despite the legal drinking age being 18. A higher drinking age may be making heavy alcohol consumption more desirable than it would otherwise be.


Tobacco companies market smoking as a grown-up and forbidden activity to make it more attractive to teenagers. A marketing report from Imperial Tobacco from 1977 stated:

"Of course, one of the very things that are attractive is [the] mere fact that cigarettes are forbidden fruit…when the adolescent is looking for something that at the same time makes them feel different and also makes them feel that they are old enough to ignore this weight of authority so as to feel that they have made their own choice, what better could be found than a cigarette? It is not just a smoke. It is a statement, a naughty adventure, a milestone episode."


Religiously conservative Utah is number one in the United States when it comes to online pornography subscriptions. This is according to Harvard economics professor Benjamin Edelman, in his study "Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?" From the Deseret News:

"And maybe, says Logan psychotherapist Todd Freestone, the fact that porn is not as visible in Utah makes it more enticing. 'If you're seeing it all the time' in cities like Las Vegas, he says, 'and it flashes up on your computer screen, then it's not that big a deal.'"

University of Utah sociology professor Theresa A. Martinez explained that:

"The forbidden is really tempting. Where you have a culture that is known for family values, morality and apple pie, you will also have curiosity and interest in the forbidden."

Pakistan comes out on top when it comes to Internet searches for most kinds of pornography, including gay porn. Yet only 2 percent of Pakistanis think society should accept homosexuality. Ultra-conservative Peshawar tops more cosmopolitan cities like Lahore and Karachi in gay porn searches.

Forbidden Fruit Studies With Kids

Being too restrictive can make forbidden foods more desirable to kids. Children who are denied certain foods "pig out" when they get access to them. According to the Scientific American Frontiers show Fat and Happy:

"Paradoxically, restriction not only is not an effective way of promoting moderation, but it seems to promote the behaviors that parents intend to avoid by using that practice."

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, studies have found that restricting certain foods makes them more desirable to children:

"Restricting access focuses children's attention on restricted foods, while increasing their desire to obtain and consume those foods. Restricting children's access to palatable foods is not an effective means of promoting moderate intake of palatable foods and may encourage the intake of foods that should be limited in the diet."

In one study, kids were given two equally popular snacks. Later, they were offered one of the snacks but the other was kept in a see-through plastic container. The kids were told they weren't allowed to eat the snack in the container. Later both snacks were again offered. This time the previously forbidden snack was most popular with the unrestricted snack remaining largely untouched.

Other studies have found that children who come from homes with strict controls on junk food eat more of it when given unlimited access than children who come from homes with less strict limits.

"higher levels of restriction predicting higher levels of snack food intake."

Moderation rather than prohibition may be a better approach when it comes to junk food and kids.

We Can't Allow Everything

Despite the existence of the Forbidden Fruit Effect, we can't avoid placing restrictions on everything just because doing so may increase desire. Higher drinking ages reduce drunk driving accidents and drinking later lowers the risk of developing an addiction. Even if a higher drinking age leads to more alcohol consumption, lives saved by preventing drunk driving accidents have to be taken into account when setting policy.

Not everything that's restricted leads to increased desire. Murder is forbidden and illegal. Murder rates are almost certainly lower than they would be if killing was allowed. The same is true for thefts, sexual assaults, and other crimes.

The forbidden fruit effect is important to consider when making laws and deciding how to raise children. It doesn't mean that there should never be restrictions or that prohibition always leads to increased desire. However, it is important to be aware of this effect because in some cases prohibition may make a problem worse than it otherwise would have been.

The Forbidden Fruit Effect and Dieting

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 LT Wright