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Setting mental budgets as a means of self-control

Mental budgets are sometimes helpful for self-control.

Cruise buffetLast week, I went on a cruise with my family. A prime activity on a cruise is eating. There is food available 24-hours-a-day. There are multiple courses available at every meal. There are desserts everywhere, and unlimited supply of ice cream.

In short, a cruise is not be an easy place to be on a diet.

If you are trying to maintain a diet at home, you have some control over your environment. You can choose the foods that you buy. If you have a weakness for rich ice cream, you can avoid keeping it in the freezer. But, what can you do when the environment is not under your control.

A paper scheduled to appear in the June, 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Parthasarathy Krishnamurthy and Sonja Prokopec suggests that a mental budget can help.

These researchers found a set of key factors that combined to help people with their self control.

Fun size candy barsFirst, it was important to set a mental budget for consuming food and to have a reference point for setting that budget. That is, people needed to know how much consumption is normal. That amount was a reference point for their budget. Then, they had to set their budget in relation to that reference point. For example, participants in a study might be told that college students eat an average of 2.13 fun-size candy bars a day. Then, they would set a limit of how many they would want to eat.

Second, it was important that it be easy to keep track of the goal. For example, if people set a goal to eat a maximum number of calories a day, then the number of calories in each food needs to be readily available. Otherwise, it is not possible to succeed at staying within the mental budget.

Third, the mental budget is most successful when people are thinking about the negative (or avoidance) aspects of foods (such as the fat content) than when people are thinking about the positive (or approach) aspects of foods (such as the taste).

In one study, for example, people filled out a number of surveys about fun-size candy bars. Along the way, some people set a budget for how many they would eat relative to a reference point. Other people set no budget and had no reference point. Some people wrote about the positive aspects of the candy bars, while others wrote about reasons to avoid candy bars. The people who set a budget and thought about the reasons to avoid candy bars took fewer candy bars to eat than those people who did not set a budget or set a budget but thought about the positive aspects of the candy.

Finally, you have to keep in mind that budgets are not guaranteed to succeed. Although there are benefits to setting a mental budget, it is also important to make that budget realistic. Budgets help you to pay attention to your goal. But if your budget is too hard to stick to, then you will ignore it. So, if you are going to set a budget to help you eat less, then start by paying attention to the amount you normally eat and make your first budget just a little lower than that.

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