The cues are everywhere. Whether it’s the smell of freshly baked cookies as you enter your favorite bakery, those mouth-watering pizza commercials on TV, or the donut shops that seem to be popping up on every corner, food temptations abound. And, it turns out that when you are bombarded by food cues, you tend to consume more. Case in point, people in an office eat more candy when there is a candy jar on top of a desk in plain view than when the candy is hidden in a drawer.
It’s probably not so surprising to learn that the abundance of food and the cues to eat it in Western society may contribute to overeating and obesity. What is surprising is that you can quickly train yourself to avoid temptation, simply by changing how you look at cues to eat.
In a study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, a group of Australian researchers trained people to look differently at pictures of chocolate (specifically to look away from tempting chocolate images when they appeared) and then measured how much chocolate people actually ate.
Here is how the experiment went: Volunteers were told they would be performing an attention task where two pictures were presented side-by-side on a computer screen. After about half a second, the pictures disappear and a dot appears where one of the pictures was previously. Your job is to simply say whether the dot is in the location previously occupied by the left or right picture. Here is where things get interesting. Some of the pictures depict chocolate (say a chocolate bar or pudding) and some depict a non-chocolate food item (say, pizza). Most importantly, for some people, the dot almost always (on 90% of the trials) replaces a chocolate picture (prompting people to start paying more attention to the chocolate images) and, for other people, the opposite happens (the dot almost always replaces a non-chocolate food product) – prompting them to shift their attention away from the chocolate pictures when they pop up. People learn pretty quick whether the dot is going to be in the same place as the chocolate or the opposite.