Eat, drink and be scary: Halloween hijacks social norms

It’s Halloween, and later tonight people all over America and the Western world will celebrate by asking strangers to give them treats, pulling some obnoxious pranks (read: vandalism and theft1) and/or by dressing up as something they are not. And people who don’t participate in these activities (minus the vandalism for most of us) are considered downers who can’t have fun. For many of us, Halloween is fun. Going out into the world wearing an acceptable lie is exhilarating. It’s like makeup on crack. You get to present a totally different face to the world without being branded disingenuous. You are even lauded for your pretending, with compliments and contests for the people who seem the least like themselves. For a social psychologist, it isn’t that surprising that people of all ages love Halloween, long after the candy train dries up. People have public and private selves, and Halloween gives them a chance to let their freak flags fly out in the open.

The normative acceptance of uninhibited behavior on Halloween is one of its most powerful allures. Without using drugs or alcohol, adults have very few chances to express themselves outside of the normal confines of human interaction. While children can just spontaneously pretend to be dinosaurs in the middle of the math lesson, that doesn’t exactly fly in the typical workday. Halloween comes with its own set of norms, like most holidays, called situational norms. People tend to eat similar kinds of foods, perform similar kinds of rituals, go to similar kinds of places and surround themselves with similar kinds of people. Because holidays have their own norms, they supersede the norms that people usually adhere to. While some holidays may institute more chaste norms, like Easter Sunday, some holidays encourage public intoxication and belligerent nationalism, like the Fourth of July. Halloween encourages people to wallow in a slightly darker version of themselves. To express hidden identities and indulge in desires they usually resist.

Even though we usually think of norms as being society wide, any group can institute norms for any period of time. They change over time, they change depending on the group of people you are with and they change depending on whether or not you are alone. I’m talking about eating 25 fun sized Snickers bars while you are waiting for trick or treaters, not living some sort of secret double life. People usually behave differently when they are alone. But on Halloween all bets are off. While most people wouldn’t usually wear their Merry Widow or pajamas out of the house, there are 10 such individuals packing the bar you’re at on Halloween. I know one woman who dubbed her costume “expensive prostitute.” Most people wouldn’t want to act out the role of expensive prostitute while trying to be heard at a work meeting, or while trying to get a loan at the bank, but this lady is going to be selling herself on the streets tonight in a socially sanctioned way.

It’s probably a good thing we have public and private selves. I don’t want to see you at peak weekend, in your sweatpants, with chip crumbs on your chest and the greasy sheen of Netflix reflected off your unwashed forehead. That’s you time! But it’s also good to have time when we get to decompress, and let go of our controlled behavior. Inhibition is one of the three elements of self-control, along with initiation and continuation/maintenance.2 It’s often one of the toughest challenges for us, to inhibit our natural desires to eat the candy, or to stay in bed when we need to get ready for work. It takes self-control to resist these desires, and some theorists believe that we only have a limited store of self-control to resist them with.3 When we use that self-control, we become depleted, which means that we are unable to engage in controlled behavior for a short time while we replenish our stores. This is why we are so much more exhausted when we spend an hour at a networking event, being the best version of ourselves, than we are after spending an evening with friends, where we are relaxed and less worried about adhering to norms.

Halloween is almost like a big self-control break for both adults and children. It gives us the opportunity to eat junk food with impunity, to pay money for cheap thrills, to put graveyard markers on our front lawns and to wear our underwear outside. And in the tightly controlled world that we usually live in, it’s a welcome reprieve to let go for one night. Have a safe and spooky Halloween to all from us here at SocialPsyQ!

 

  1. Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L., & Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of personality and social psychology33(2), 178.
  2. Hoyle, R. H., & Davisson, E. K. (in press). Measurement of self-control by self-report: Considerations and recommendations. In D. de Ridder, M. Adriaanse, & K. Fujita (Eds.), Handbook of self-control in health and well-being. New York: Routledge.
  3. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology74(5), 1252.

For more reading about norms:

Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The silence of the library: environment, situational norm, and social behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology84(1), 18.

Allen, V. L. (1965). Situational factors in conformity. Advances in experimental social psychology2, 133-175.

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science18(5), 429-434.

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Psy Applied: Self-Control Strategies for Life (Part 3)

As the holiday season winds down, and marketers make their last cash grab of 2015, it’s time to talk about a self-control dilemma that is near and dear to my heart: impulse shopping. Black Friday is over, Cyber Monday has come and gone, but for some reason, there is no term for the deep discounts on holiday overstock that are currently flooding my email inbox. Perhaps that’s part of the point. By keeping marketing messages subtle, retailers can actually activate thoughts without your conscious awareness. You probably just got a bunch of crap you don’t need yesterday, so why are you thinking of buying more stuff today just because it’s 25% off? Knowing is half the battle, so in this installment of Psy Applied, I will be shedding some light onto the ways that marketers influence your purchasing goals.

  1. Priming- When someone is primed, it means that they have encountered a message that has affected their thoughts and behavior outside of conscious awareness.1 This is literally the entire point behind a lot of brand messaging. Much of the efficacy of these messages depends on you staying the dark. If you suddenly have a craving for Coca-Cola, you may not act on it if you realize that you’ve just been exposed to a Coca-Cola product placement on a television show. However, if you don’t notice the product placement, you are significantly more likely to choose the brand that you have just been exposed to. Research on priming has revealed some potent effects. In research about incidental brand exposure, researchers altered several pictures by placing a Dasani water bottle in the scene.2 The participants who didn’t notice the Dasani water in the pictures were significantly more likely to choose Dasani bottled water over another brand, but only after they had been exposed to the brand 12 times.2 While this may seem excessive, it actually mimics real life in many ways. We are bombarded with thousands of incidental brand messages each day, many of which involve repeat exposure to popular brands.3 Marketers use the fact that you can’t attend to all of these messages to their advantage, and they hope to bug you enough to be on your brain, but not enough so that you really know why. Notice the prime, fight the power.
  1. Persuasive appeals- Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has spent much of his career trying to uncover the strategies that people use to persuade others to behave in certain desired ways. Specifically, Cialdini uncovered 6 persuasion tactics that marketers use to make you buy in.4 The first strategy, reciprocation, depends on you feeling indebted for getting something for free, whether it’s a sample at the grocery store, or a five-dollar bill included with a marketing survey you got in the mail. Essentially, they make you feel like you owe them. The second strategy, and my personal favorite, is social proof. This is when marketers convince you that everyone else is doing it. In one study about hotel water conservation, guests were significantly more likely to reuse their towels when the appeal to do so included information that most of the other guests participated in the reuse program.5 This is basically marketing peer pressure. The third strategy, commitment, activates our desire to be consistent in our thoughts and behavior, and is often used for things like weight loss programs. If you tell everyone you are doing it, you have a desire to follow through so you don’t look bad. No one wants to be a flip-flopper. Strategy four, liking, is a common approach used by salespeople. We buy things from people we like, so marketers try harness this in several ways. They may hire a popular celebrity, a person that’s incredibly attractive, or they may try to target marketing towards specific people, increasing liking through the similarity between you and the spokesperson. The fifth strategy, authority, involves convincing people that you have expert knowledge. Marketers may use doctors to sell weight loss drugs or chefs to sell cookware. Their goal is to convince you that people in the know prefer their products. Finally, the sixth strategy, scarcity, tries to convince people that their opportunity to buy is limited. This may be through special edition or seasonal products, or through limited release collector’s editions, for example. The name of the game is to make you feel like you will miss out if you don’t act now. These 6 strategies are incredibly effective, and they’ve been selling you stuff since you were born.

It’s not surprising that advertising appeals affect the things that we purchase. Why else would companies dump billions of dollars into marketing? We often like to think that we are above being influenced, but Cialdini has demonstrated just how easy it is to persuade someone, while others have shed light onto how this may affect your behavior completely outside of conscious awareness. As we enter 2016 with our holiday bills burning a hole in our mailboxes, remember this: A savvy consumer is a suspicious consumer.

 

  1. Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1996). Automatic activation of impression formation and memorization goals: Nonconscious goal priming reproduces effects of explicit task instructions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(3), 464.
  1. Ferraro, R., Bettman, J. R., & Chartrand, T. L. (2009). The power of strangers: The effect of incidental consumer brand encounters on brand choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(5), 729-741.
  1. Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: how apple makes you “think different”. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(1), 21-35.
  1. Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence. A. Michel.
  1. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

 

 

 

 

Psy Applied: Self-Control Strategies for Life (Part 2)

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Image from someecards.com

It’s the 25th and Thanksgiving is tomorrow. From experience, I know the gateway holiday, as I lovingly call it, can sink a diet faster than a German U-Boat. You think you’re being healthy, eating candied yams and green beans covered in cream soup, but really you might as well open a pint of Ben and Jerry’s because you’re OD’ing on sugar just the same. Now, I’m not here to lessen your enjoyment of the holiday. I, too, will be stuffing my face with stuffing tomorrow. But there are some tips and tricks we can glean from social psych research to help us survive the holidays without elastic waistbands. Today, we are going to discuss the wisdom, and the wonder, of counteractive self-control.

Counteractive self-control is a self-control strategy where people use a temptation to remind them of the goal they are supposed to be pursuing, thus counteracting the temptation and causing them to act in a goal-consistent way.1 If you ever posted a picture of yourself looking fire in a bikini on the refrigerator to remind you of your diet when you want to eat, congratulations, because you are already a counteractive self-control master. There are two kinds of counteractive control: explicit and implicit. Explicit counteractive self-control comes online purposefully, when people feel the need to bolster the value of their goals in order to overcome the relative allure of the temptation. Implicit counteractive self-control, however, happens without conscious intent. People who are skilled self-regulators tend to automatically increase the value of their goals when they are confronted with temptations to ensure that they are not distracted from their pursuits.2,3 Good for those people. The rest of us want pumpkin pie.

So, it’s lucky for us that we too can engage in counteractive self-control, albeit with more deliberate intention. The first step to counteractive control is to recognize that a self-control dilemma exists in the first place.4 A self-control dilemma is a situation in which you want to practice self-control in order to work towards a goal, but you are tempted to act in a goal-inconsistent way by some short-term desire that can be satisfied now.5 Once you realize that your goal commitment is threatened, you must take action by engaging in counteractive self-control in one of three ways: 1) Bolster the value of the goal, 2) Offer yourself a delayed reward, or, 3) Self-impose a penalty.6 You can also precommit to indulge later if your problem is that you don’t enjoy yourself enough on the holidays, but then why are you reading this post you paragon of regulatory success?7

1) Bolster your goal- This is the idea behind implicit counteractive self-control. People automatically enhance the value of their goal when they are tempted to abandon it.8 However, you can also explicitly bolster the value of your goal. Goals that are important and cognitively accessible are more likely to appear valuable, and to trigger cognitive biasing toward your goal.9 Mental contrasting procedures can help people to elaborate on their goals, increasing commitment and specificity, thus increasing the accessibility.10 However, goals must be important and temptations must be strong in order for counteractive self-control to come online at all, so don’t expect this to work for that half-assed dieting goal you formed on Monday and barely considered before being confronted with all of your favorite foods.11

2) Offer yourself a delayed reward- This is a popular strategy with moms and cigarette smokers: Do something now and you can have something later. In order to capitalize on the efficacy of the reward, people tend to offer themselves bigger rewards as self-control dilemmas become more difficult for them.12 So, for a self-control dilemma that is relatively easy to overcome, you may reward yourself with the new Adele album, while a relatively difficult dilemma may prompt a bigger, more desirable reward, like a vacation. By delaying the reward, you make the reward contingent on some goal-relevant action you will perform.12 In turn, this makes the goal-relevant action important, because it will lead to the coveted reward.12

3) Self-imposing a penalty- This is an incredibly effective, but less popular, strategy. Instead of rewarding yourself for good behavior, people who use penalties punish themselves for bad behavior. In cases of self-imposed penalties, people may precommit to losing certain privileges, or to having to perform specific unpleasant actions, if they fail to accomplish an important goal. For instance, you may decide that failing to stick to your monthly budget should be penalized with a monetary donation to a charity for a cause you hate. The desire to avoid the unpleasant penalty increases the value of the goal-relevant action, as this is the path to avoidance.13

While implicit counteractive self-control seems like a cruel cosmic joke, bestowed on those of us who are already killing it, explicit self-control can work for everyone, no matter how good a self-regulator they are. With all of the tempting foods we encounter as the year winds down, we must remind ourselves of our goals now, instead of waiting to commit to act on them until next year. But, it is also important to avoid overcontrol. The holidays are a time to enjoy ourselves, and each other, so make sure to balance your diet and your joy this season! Happy Turkey Day y’all!

  1. Trope, Y., & Fishbach, A. (2000). Counteractive self-control in overcoming temptation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(4), 493.
  2. Fishbach, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2003,
  3. Fishbach, A., & Shah, J. Y. (2006). Self-control in action: implicit dispositions toward goals and away from temptations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90(5), 820.
  4. Myrseth, K. O. R., & Fishbach, A. (2009). Self-control a function of knowing when and how to exercise restraint. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(4), 247-252.
  5. Kroese, F. M., Evers, C., & De Ridder, D. T. (2009). How chocolate keeps you slim. The effect of food temptations on weight watching goal importance, intentions, and eating behavior. Appetite, 53(3), 430-433.
  6. Fishbach, A., & Trope, Y. (2005). The substitutability of external control and self-control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(3), 256-270.
  7. Kivetz, R., & Simonson, I. (2002). Self-control for the righteous: Toward a theory of precommitment to indulgence. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(2), 199-217.
  8. Fishbach, A., Zhang, Y., & Trope, Y. (2010). Counteractive evaluation: Asymmetric shifts in the implicit value of conflicting motivations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 29-38.
  9. Fishbach, A., & Trope, Y. (2007). Implicit and explicit mechanisms of counteractive self-control. Handbook of motivation science, 281-294.
  10. Duckworth, A. L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2011). Self‐regulation strategies improve self‐discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology, 31(1), 17-26.
  11. Fishbach, A., & Converse, B. A. (2010). Walking the line between goals and temptations: Asymmetric effects of counteractive control. Self control in society, mind, and brain, 389-407.
  12. Trope, Y., & Fishbach, A. (2005). Going Beyond the Motivation Given: Self-Control and Situational Control 0ver Behavior. Psychology, 7(3), 417-458.
  13. Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological science, 13(3), 219-224.

 

Forecasting Self-Control

Today’s guest writer is Andrew Hall, a current social psychology PhD student at Northwestern University.head 8

Have you ever established plans to maintain a healthy weight or to exercise more, only to find that the presence of sweets or the temptation of television steers you away from your lofty goal? If you answered yes to this question, you may not be alone: people might frequently craft flawed predictions of their own ability to exert self-control in future situations, making for disagreements between what is predicted and what is actually achieved when trying to exert self-control. In a new line of research, social psychologists are investigating whether this perceived inaccuracy in self-control predictions—termed “self-control forecasting” in the literature—is a commonly-occurring phenomenon in human behavior and, potentially, a quality that could impact the way that we approach goal-setting and goal-attainment moving forward.

But what exactly is self-control? We define self-control as the process by which one alters one’s immediate thoughts, emotions, or behaviors in order to promote future goals or idealized states [1]. In other words, self-control translates to restraining current impulses (e.g., watching television) in favor of actions that move a person toward a desired future state (e.g., paying bills on time). If there are inaccuracies in the way that one “forecasts” self-control, then there are discrepancies between one’s predicted ability to resist these current impulses in favor of desired future states and one’s actual behavior when confronted with the self-control situation.

Although the qualities of self-control predictions have not been thoroughly investigated in the psychological literature, anecdotally, we know that these predictions may not be consistently accurate. This reasoning largely draws from research on a related subject, that of affective forecasting. Affective forecasting describes a person’s ability to predict his or her future emotional or “affective” states [2][3]. People have been shown to make flawed predictions of their future affective states, tending to overestimate both the intensity and duration of emotional reactions [2][4][3]. Researchers of self-control forecasting attempt to draw this same conclusion about behavioral prediction: could it be possible that humans are just as bad at predicting future ability to exert self-control as they are at predicting future affective states?

An initial exploratory analysis conducted at Duke University suggests that this may be the case. When asked to describe a time in the past in which they made inaccurate self-control predictions, all 192 of the respondents in a recent survey were able to provide rich descriptions of experiences in which they made self-control predictions in response to a temptation that differed from their realized behaviors. That respondents were able to detail instances of self-control forecasting inaccuracies with such rich description and only minimal prompting suggests that such prediction inaccuracies are not unusual to the average person. Extending upon this conclusion, the categories of temptations from the responses were very diverse, with responses that included food, sex, exercise, and relaxation, among others. This diversity suggests that these inaccuracies may characterize self-control predictions in general and not just those associated with a specific type of temptation. Additionally, though they were permitted to respond about a temptation that occurred within the past month, all participants detailed temptations that occurred within the past week, providing further evidence that these prediction inaccuracies are fairly common occurrences. Taken together, these results suggest that inaccurate self-control predictions are not unheard of in a general sample and may actually be commonplace occurrences.

Although self-control forecasting research is still in an early stage, these initial exploratory results are promising. It appears as though forecasts of future self-control abilities are not always accurate and that these inaccuracies are not infrequent occurrences. However, further studies are needed in order to determine the magnitude and frequency of this effect. In the meantime, many of us can at least be reassured that we are not alone in our self-control prediction inaccuracies, lofty self-improvement goals be damned.


 

Andrew hails from Charlotte, NC, where he lived before shuffling slightly north to receive a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University. At Duke, he completed research investigating social psychological phenomena related to the self and self-regulation. He is currently a graduate student in the PhD program in social psychology at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the social side of self-regulatory functioning, as well as how self-implemented goals and mental ideations about identity affect one’s ability to achieve appropriate self-regulatory control. Outside of the lab, Andrew enjoys going on runs in the sweltering southern heat and cooking dishes that have been described by critics as “edible.”

 

1-Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16 (6), 351-355.
2-Bueller, R., & McFarland, C. (2001). Intensity bias in affective forecasting: The role of temporal focus. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1480-1493.
3-Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting. Current Directions in Psychological Science.
4-Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Perosnality and Social Psychology, 75, 617-638.

social psych snapshot: week of 10/5/15


Hannah
This week, Hannah provides the research highlights of early fall 2015!

You may already know about the cognitive consequences of Google but this article explores some social consequences of Google and technology more broadly.

Promising lab research suggests that comedy may be an effective means of coping with emotional distress.

New research conceptually replicates an old finding – that taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) can blunt negative emotions – and extends it, suggesting that acetaminophen may blunt strong positive and negative emotions alike.

Hm… I won’t be trying this unusual method of enhancing self-control based on the theory of inhibitory spillover: that trying to control your behavior in one domain might help you control your behavior in another.


Hannah graduated with a degree in Psychology from Reed College, and worked in educational research and meta-analysis as a lab manager at Duke University before entering the Social Psychology PhD program in 2014. Her research focuses on social psychological processes at work in educational contexts.

Psy Applied: Self-Control Strategies for Life (Part 1)

autumn-fall-candy-dessert-buffet-frostedevents-orange-halloween

Image from Frosted Events

As the holidays approach, and the grocery store shelves fill up with fattening treats, many of us are faced with a self-control crisis between our desire to eat healthy, and our desire to eat decadently. While indulging in some candy on Halloween isn’t going to be sending you into a downward spiral, a consistently unhealthy diet can lead to problems with weight and/or illness.

Luckily, social psychologists have uncovered some strategies that can be used to help bolster your self-control, throughout the holiday season and into the happy new year. From now until New Year’s, we’ll be exploring ways in which social psychology findings can apply to real-life struggle city.

Implementation intentions are if-then plans where a person specifies a situation and a response he or she will use to act in accordance with an important goal.1 For example, I may form an intention to make healthier eating choices by planning to eat a piece of fruit every time I want to eat ice cream. This may not seem that much more effective than just forming a goal intention, like a goal to eat less ice cream, but a great deal of research suggests otherwise.2 Compared with people who only have goal intentions, people who form implementation intentions achieve their goals more, take opportunities to pursue their goals faster and are more likely to notice those opportunities to pursue goals in the first place.3,4,5

Researchers have suggested a few reasons why implementation intentions work. One is that by specifying the critical situation and the critical response, it helps to keep your goal and your goal-related behavior easily accessible, or in other words, it stays on your mind.6 This heightened awareness makes you more likely to notice when the critical situation arises, and more likely to make the desired, goal-consistent response you planned to make.7 Another, is that forming implementation intentions makes goal-consistent behavior automatic, so that it can initiate even if you aren’t thinking about doing it.8 Because of this, Gollwitzer and colleagues theorize that implementation intentions actually help to avoid the need for self-control, because the situation cues the correct behavior instead of the person having to summon it up on the spot.9,10

In addition to the fact that implementation intentions are efficacious in goal attainment, they appear to be effective for everyone. Unlike many other strategies, there’s no evidence they depend on your normal level of self-control. Even people with low self-control can successfully use implementation intentions to avoid being derailed from their goals. It appears that implementation intentions may also help to buffer against depletion effects, or situations in which one has less self-control because they just exerted self-control in another task.11 And, luckily, it can motivate people to accomplish difficult and unpleasant goals where many other strategies fail.12

So, if you want to avoid eating a veritable Reese’s Pumpkin patch this Hallows Eve, you may want to form some implementation intentions. If you are tempted to eat junk food, then you will come get some self-control tips from Social PsyQ instead! Stay tuned for more Psy Applied!

  1. Sheeran, P., Webb, T. L., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2005). The interplay between goal intentions and implementation intentions. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(1), 87-98.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119.
  1. Oettingen, G., Hönig, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2000). Effective self-regulation of goal attainment. International Journal of Educational Research, 33(7), 705-732.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M. (1993). Goal achievement: The role of intentions. European Review of Social Psychology, 4(1), 141-185.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493.
  1. Faude-Koivisto, T. S., Wuerz, D., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2009). Implementation intentions: The mental representations and cognitive procedures of if-then planning.
  1. Sheeran, P., & Orbell, S. (2000). Using implementation intentions to increase attendance for cervical cancer screening. Health Psychology, 19(3), 283.
  1. Sheeran, P., & Orbell, S. (1999). Implementation intentions and repeated behaviour: Augmenting the predictive validity of the theory of planned behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 29(23), 349-369.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M., Fujita, K., & Oettingen, G. (2004). Planning and the implementation of goals.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M., & Schaal, B. (1998). Metacognition in action: The importance of implementation intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2(2), 124-136.
  1. Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2003). Can implementation intentions help to overcome ego-depletion?. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39(3), 279-286.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M., & Brandstätter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 186.

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