Self-Control and Eating: Which counts more, health or taste?

Could the time it takes you to process taste- and health-related characteristics of food predict the final food decision you’ll make? A study recently published in the journal Psychological Science1 would suggest so. The study examined the hypothetical food decisions of 28 male and female undergraduates using a mouse tracking task, which captured both the time and trajectory of participants’ decisions. See image below of the task and sample trajectory results.

FoodChoice_Mouse track

food choice_caption Participants low in dietary self-control processed tastiness of a food significantly faster than healthiness of a food before making a final food decision. The researchers suggest that the earlier a factor like taste is processed while making a decision, the more heavily weighted that factor will be in someone’s final decision. Health-related attributes (e.g. calories), on the other hand, are delayed in the decision-making process and won’t be as strongly considered in the decision-making process. For example, someone low in dietary self-control who has a weak spot for gooey fudge brownies will immediately think about how delicious and sweet the brownies will be rather than their relative unhealthiness, and this deliciousness factor will be the strongest and loudest factor when that person decides whether to eat the brownies. Knowing this, no one is surprised when the brownies win the majority of the time.

In contrast, participants high in self-control processed tastiness and healthiness at approximately the same time, making both attributes relatively balanced when making a food decision, which may explain why those high in dietary self-control are more often successful when trying to exert self-control in a food situation.

Based on these findings, the researchers suggest the following implications:

  1. Delaying a food decision, even by a small waiting period, may be enough time to allow health factors to influence a final decision more strongly
  2. Interventions that can increase speed with which health information is processed may improve dietary self-control.
  3. Marketing strategies that display health attributes more prominently may promote faster processing of health attributes

To read the original article, check out the citation below.


1- Sullivan, N., Hutcherson, C., Harris, A., & Rangel, A. (2014). Dietary self-control is related to the speed with which attributes of healthfulness and tastiness are processed. Psychological Science. Advance online publication. 1-13. doi: 10.1177/0956797614559543

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