Tag Archives: Self-Control

Yum! This imagined cake is as good as the real thing.

By Erica Zaiser

For some people, all the delicious calorific treats being pushed by friends and relatives during the holiday season can be a joyous and tasty time. But for others, the holiday season can feel like a constant battle of the wills due to the guilt-laden festive food. In the struggle for self-control many people force themselves to stop thinking about all the food they are attempting to avoid. It seems logical that if you think about eating it, you will want to eat it. But some psychology research has suggested just the opposite.

In a set of studies discussed in the Guardian online, participants who were asked to imagine eating large amounts of a treat actually ate less of the food afterwards compared to those who imagined eating a small amount or imagined interacting with the food in a different way. Although the difference was small, this might suggest that actually visualising the behaviour beforehand reduces the “wanting drive” for that behaviour. It would be interesting to see if this type of activity would work for other negative behaviours people want to avoid (smoking for example).

Some past research on behavioural intentions has shown that when imagining a positive behaviour, people report more intentions to engage in it. It’s interesting that with a positive behaviour, imagining it can increase willingness to do it; but imagining engaging in a negative (but wanted) behaviour can decrease the need to engage in real life.

Read more: Effects of Directed Thinking on Intentions to Engage in Beneficial Activities: Idea Generation or Mental Simulation?
Read more: Imagine eating if you want to lose weight, say scientists. Guardian.co.uk.


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“I can resist everything except temptation” – Oscar Wilde

By Erica Zaiser

Lent began yesterday and for many Christians this means giving up something for 40 days, in part to practice self-discipline. While forgoing meat, chocolate, smoking, or whatever else one chooses, when temptation hits, it might be useful to review some of the findings in social psychology on self-control. According to one theory, self-control is construal dependent. So, when trying to refrain from something, depending on how you see the tempting situation you may come to a different conclusion.

It seems that we have better self-control when something is psychologically distant (for example through time or space). There are many ways to be psychologically distant from a situation. In one study, psychologists found that when people pictured themselves voting from a third person perspective they were more likely to actually go and vote versus people who pictured voting from a first person perspective. So, maybe when you go for that chocolate you vowed to give up you will do a better job refraining if you picture yourself eating it from a third person perspective. Other ways to distance yourself psychologically would be to view your action in the context of time– tell yourself yes you can drink a glass of wine now, but in the long run you won’t be happy with yourself for breaking Lent. Or perhaps the easiest way to distance yourself from your temptation is to literally distance yourself from it. Move the cake into a different room or don’t keep cake in your house in the first place because (no surprises here) physical distance has been shown to make self-control easier as well.

Although, my guess is that if psychological distance can improve self-control, people who are practicing Lent may already have an advantage over people who just choose to forgo something outside the religious context. Lent itself provides a superordinate goal of discipline and willpower in order to become more spiritually fulfilled. Remembering this bigger picture when tempted may provide the psychological distance needed to refrain.

Read more about self-control:  Fujita, Kentaro (2008).  Seeing the Forest Beyond the Trees: A Construal-Level Approach to Self-Control. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 2, 1475-1496.

Read more:  Libby et al. (2007). Picture Yourself at the Polls: Visual Perspective in Mental Imagery Affects Self-Perception and Behavior. Psychological Science. 18, 199-203.

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Should we put our mind to it, go for it, get down and break a sweat?

treadmillA recent story in Time Magazine made a bold statement by proclaiming that while exercise and physical activity may improve physical and mental health, it may not help you lose weight. As the author acknowledges, there are a number of reasons this might occur. Physiologically, exercise can prompt the release of hormones that stimulate hunger, causing people to eat more. Additionally, as the article discusses, some dieters often reward themselves after workouts by consuming high-calorie foods that merely replace the calories burned during the workout.

Another possible explanation addressed in the article looks to social psychological research performed by Roy Baumeister and colleagues. In their pivotal studies about self-regulation, they found that when people are depleted of the energy to exercise self-control, they often engage in disinhibited behaviors, such as eating more. These studies have interesting implications for weight loss and exercise. For instance, people who are exercising frequently might also be dieting to lose weight. Dieters often employ substantial self-restraint throughout the day to resist tempting food. Thus, it might not be exercise that is leading to increased eating; rather, the frequent self-monitoring process of dieters may deplete them of the energy needed to resist fattening foods. On the other hand, exercise lowers blood sugar levels, including that of glucose, which has been intimately linked to self-regulatory abilities (Gailliot et al., 2007). Is it the case then that post-exercise hunger, which often leads to the consumption of high-sugar food, is simply the body’s way of returning to homeostasis?

It seems that social psychological research will have much more to say about this topic in the future, as it remains unclear whether it is dieting or exercise that is directly leading to the consumption of fattening foods. And if the booming weight-loss market tells us anything, it’s that people want to know the best way to get fit and look good.

square-eye Time Magazine: Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.

square-eye Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The Strength Model of Self-Control.

$1.99 Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation.