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January 31, 2012
Controlling Temptations May Be As Easy As Pie With This One Trick

Controlling our temptations is one of the hardest parts of life. Many temptations surround us wherever we go because we attract them. Resisting temptation may be as simple as delaying it. Promising yourself a temptation at a nebulous later date can actually decrease the amount of your ultimate consumption of that temptation.


A temptation is an act that looks appealing to an individual. It typically describes acts with negative connotations and as such, tends to lead a person to regret such actions, for various reasons: legal, social, psychological (including feeling guilt), health, economic, etc.

We've all had our moments of weakness when trying to control ourselves; eating that donut on your diet, losing your temper with your kids, becoming upset when you're doing your best not to. It isn't like we plan on these lapses in judgment. It's more like they just sort of happen.

There is scientific evidence that explains this phenomenon of everyday life. Self regulation, our strength to inhibit impulses, make decisions, persist at difficult tasks, and control emotions can be spent just like a muscle that has been lifting heavy weights. When we spend our strength on one task (trying to control your emotion around a petulant boss), there is less to spend on others (avoiding that favorite ice cream).

"It really keeps the temptation at arm's length," said study researcher Nicole Mead, a psychologist at the Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics in Portugal.

In a series of experiments, Mead and her colleagues found that this postponement strategy neither encourages guilt-ridden indulgence in an unhealthy treat nor does it encourage painful abstinence (which all too often leads to later bingeing). In one experiment, the researchers provided volunteers, who were completing various tasks in the lab, with bowls of M&Ms. Some students were told to eat the M&Ms if they wanted, some were told to avoid eating them, and a third group was told that they could eat the M&Ms later, if they felt like it.

At the end of the experiment, after the students could assume the researchers were no longer interested in them, the psychologists brought back the M&M bowls. The students who had snacked on the treats to their satisfaction earlier ate 5.19 grams of the candies (in addition to what they'd eaten already). Those who were deprived of M&Ms earlier went wild, eating 9.81 grams. In comparison, the postponement group ate 5.08 grams, the least of all three groups.

"Participants in the 'don't eat' condition ate practically double the amount of M&Ms" as those in the "wait until later" condition.

Not only that, she said, but the experiment had real-world implications right away. Participants who had been forbidden from eating chocolate at first in the experiment ate chocolate on average 4.48 times in the week following the experiment, and participants who had been able to eat M&Ms at will ate chocolate 3.18 times on average in the next week. But participants in the "wait until later" condition ate chocolate only 1.15 times, on average, over the next week.

"What this means is that postponement has real implications for everyday consumption," Mead said. "It encourages self-control."

The funny thing about being vulnerable to saying, eating, or doing the wrong thing is that humans are typically unaware that they are in a moment of weakness, unlike the strain and fatigue we feel in our muscles after a workout.

In another experiment, the researchers extended the findings to the real world, giving potato chips to 105 students at a Netherlands high school. The students were divided into the same groups as in the M&M study. And this time, an additional group of students could choose between the three eating plans.

The researchers then tracked how many chips the students ate over the next seven days. Just as in the lab, students who put off eating the chips until later ended up eating the least, and didn't compensate by overeating other snack foods, Mead said. Best of all, the strategy worked whether chosen or assigned.

"It's a cooling-off strategy," Mead said.

Most likely, postponing a treat until an unspecified later time helps get people over the hump of strong temptation, said Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, who studies willpower but was not involved in Mead's research.

"You need the resistance at the moment of peak desire, then the peak desire moment passes," Baumeister said.

It's not clear whether using the postponement strategy would work as a weight-loss method, Mead said, as focusing on the dieting aspect of postponement might, ironically, keep the temptation in your mind, where you have to fight it. (Research published in the journal Science in 2010, however, showed that fantasizing about a particular food could actually help you resist eating that food.)

But passing on the desired treat once might even revamp a person's self-image, Mead said. A person who turns down M&Ms in the moment might start to think of themselves as someone who doesn't even like M&Ms all that much. The next time the opportunity comes around, it may be easier to turn down the chocolates again.

New research conducted by University of Kentucky psychologists Suzanne Segerstrom and Lise Solberg Nes suggest that there may be a biological indicator to tell us when we are working hard at resisting temptation and consequently when we are vulnerable to doing things contrary to our intentions.

A measure of cardiac regulation called "heart rate variability" (HRV) appears to be linked to self regulation according to the article published in the March issue of Psychological Science.

The authors conducted a two-part study in order to test their hypothesis. In the first, participants were instructed to fast for three hours in order to take part in what they believed was a "physiology of food preference" experiment. Participants' HRV was monitored while they were presented with a tray of cookies, candy and..carrots. Temptation, in this case, was indicated by giving into the tastier but decidedly less healthy snack of cookies and candy.

HRV as it turns out was considerably higher when people were working to resist temptation (eating carrots rather than cookies and chocolate) than when they were not, suggesting that HRV was mirroring the self regulation taking place.

So, will we be wearing a cardiac monitor in the near future to gauge whether we are vulnerable in our self regulating abilities? It's doubtful, say the authors. However, when considering special populations with more serious consequences of self regulatory failure (say, alcoholics) HRV feedback could be helpful to determine when those critical relapses in regulation will happen.


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