Saturday, July 27, 2013

Hide the Chocolate or Lose the Diet

There's nothing more counter-productive to not eating between meals than living with someone who leaves an open package of chocolate chip cookies or nacho chips on the kitchen counter.  There are two ways to deal with this situation: close the package and put it back on the shelf or reach in and snatch a couple cookies or a handful of chips.  Guess which action is more likely?  I rest my case.

A new study on self-control by researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Dusseldorf adds credence to the scenario above by suggesting that avoiding temptation is likely to increase your chances of success with a diet as opposed to simply relying on willpower alone.  In other words, out of sight, out of mind.  According to one of the investigators, Molly Crockett, "Our research suggests that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place."  True, this sounds like 'bubba psychology" - a truth that your grandmother could have told you, without having to do the research at all, but the research adds empirical support to what otherwise is armchair psychology.

The fancy term for restricting access to temptations is "precommitment" - such as not buying those fattening chocolate chip cookies in the first place or putting money is a savings account with high withdrawal fees. 

The research team provided male participants with a series of choices - some involving small rewards that were continuously available or large rewards that were forthcoming.  To obtain the large rewards, the participants had to exert willpower to resist opting for the small rewards.  For other choices they had the opportunity to precommit, so as to avoid the temptations.  Brain activity was measured as the decisions were made, and by looking at the brain regions that play a role in willpower and precommitment, it was found that precommitment was a more effective self-control strategy than willpower.  So give your brain a break and stick to your diet through some simple precommitments - don't buy the cookies, chocolates, or chips at all, or if you do, put them on a high shelf where you can't see them.  Hide the chocolate, save the diet.

Further reading:
Crockett, M. J., Breams, B. R., Clark, L., Tobler, P. N., Robbins, T. W., & Kalenscher, T.  (2013). Restricting temptations: Neural mechanisms of precommitment.  Neuron.  DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.05.028

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