Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Think mind over matter is just a figure of speech?

If you're like me, when you crave something (like buttered popcorn at the movies) you usually try to put it out of your mind and think about something else. My assumption being that continuously thinking about something I long for increases my desire for that item rather than decreases it.   However, Joachim Vosgerau, Ph.D., author of a recent study at Carnegie Mellon University, shows just the opposite.  The study reported that people, who repeatedly thought about a specific food before eating it, actually consumed less than:
  • those that didn't think about eating that specific food as many times
  • those that didn't think about eating that specific food 
  • those that didn't think about eating food at all
Below is an abstract of the study that was published in Science Magazine in December 2010:

The consumption of a food typically leads to a decrease in its subsequent intake through habituation—a decrease in one’s responsiveness to the food and motivation to obtain it. We demonstrated that habituation to a food item can occur even when its consumption is merely imagined. Five experiments showed that people who repeatedly imagined eating a food (such as cheese) many times subsequently consumed less of the imagined food than did people who repeatedly imagined eating that food fewer times, imagined eating a different food (such as candy), or did not imagine eating a food. They did so because they desired to eat it less, not because they considered it less palatable. These results suggest that mental representation alone can engender habituation to a stimulus.

So if you think mind over matter is just a figure of speech, think again... and again... and again.

Click here to listen to an interesting podcast with Joachim Vosgerau, Ph.D as featured on PM with Mark Colvin.  If you happen to be at work and can't listen to the podcast right now, the transcript is below...

MARK COLVIN: There's new evidence today of the power of imagination. US researchers have shown that people can cut their desire to eat certain foods if they repeatedly go through the motions of devouring them in their mind's eye. There's potential in the findings to help break food addictions and even to help people quit smoking.

Ashley Hall reports.
 Joachim Vosgerau is a professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and one of the authors of the study, published in Science magazine.

ASHLEY HALL: The researchers started out with a simple premise; that a person's imagination and actual experiences manifest themselves in a similar way.

JOACHIM VOSGERAU: Imagine a spider crawling over your leg, yeah? Has the same behavioural consequences than if the spider actually crawls over your leg.

ASHLEY HALL: They wondered, could that premise be extended to thoughts about food? 

JOACHIM VOSGERAU: I thought that was actually a crazy idea. I didn't believe that this would work but I like crazy ideas so we said, let's see whether that's true and we designed and experiment and was totally stunned when we got the results.

ASHLEY HALL: The researchers tested their theory by dividing the participants into groups and asking each group to imagine eating a different amount of chocolate. Then, they gave them a big bowl of chocolate and told them to eat as much as they could.

JOACHIM VOSGERAU: So it turns out that the group that imagined eating more M&Ms, they ate less M&Ms than the other two groups.

ASHLEY HALL: So they imagined themselves to a state of fullness?

JOACHIM VOSGERAU: That is actually the one potential explanation: that simply by imagining eating all those M&Ms you get this sensation of feeling of being full, yeah? But then we did another experiment to test that.

ASHLEY HALL: They asked people to imagine eating chocolate or cheese, with the researchers offering them a big bowl of cheese afterwards. Those who'd imagined eating cheese ate far less of it than those who'd imagined eating chocolate.

JOACHIM VOSGERAU: It is specific to the food that you imagine eating that brings about the success.

ASHLEY HALL: So do we know what is at work there? What's going on in the brain?

JOACHIM VOSGERAU: Yeah, we believe the effect or the mechanism is habituation. So habituation is a gradual decrease in the motivation to obtain that food and habituation is food specific. So it's like in real life when you eat, for example, a steak, with each bite of the steak, the steak becomes less desirable and your motivation to eat more of the steak declines. But then that has not much of impact on your desire for eating let's say ice-cream for dessert, yeah? So it is a food specific effect.

ASHLEY HALL: It might explain why children who say they simply can't eat another mouthful of their dinner still have room for dessert. Joachim Vosgerau says a similar but different principle is used in advertising.

JOACHIM VOSGERAU: There's a lot of research that shows if you just think about a stimulus, only once, then it increases in its attractiveness. So if you just think about the steak, then your desire to eat the steak increases. So you get this effect of habituation with a decrease in the desire to eat the steak only if you repeatedly think about it and so this is the difference between what we are doing and what is done in advertising. In advertising you are typically only motivated to think about the stimulus and it's only once, not repeated, like 30 times or so.

ASHLEY HALL: So are there applications for the findings of this study in day to day life? Particularly, I imagine, in the field of weight-loss?

JOACHIM VOSGERAU: You have to be careful. You have to keep in mind that this is a food specific effect. So it's probably not, it's not going to work in terms of curbing your hunger or so. But what you can use it for is to substitute foods. So if you're tempted, for example, by chocolate brownies, then thinking intensely about how you eat chocolate brownies bite by bite will decrease the desire to eat chocolate brownies and therefore you can probably eat something else. But it will not work in terms of decreasing your overall hunger level.

ASHLEY HALL: The researchers believe their findings might also help people wanting to quit smoking.

JOACHIM VOSGERAU: When you're a smoker and you're trying to quit smoking the most difficult problem is that you have those recurring thoughts about smoking. So typically you try to suppress the thoughts which is very effortful and very painful and according to our theory one should do exactly the opposite. So whenever the craving comes and you think about cigarettes, you should engage in thinking as vividly as possible smoking a cigarette drag by drag. And that will actually decrease the craving.

ASHLEY HALL: It's a technique Joachim Vosgerau has himself adopted to quit cigarettes. So far, he's managed two weeks.

So, we know this technique works with food and smoking... which is great!  But what about other areas of our lives?  Like the gold Cartier Love bracelet I've been longing for?  I think about it all the time and I still want it...

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1 comment:

  1. me too! i still want the cartier ... maybe we shouldn't think about it and then we'll get it? does that even make sense? i'll try anything ;)