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Try This: Willpower Experiment for Making Smarter, Healthier Choices

The brain is easier to fool than we think.

Given the choice, would you rather eat a can of curried grasshoppers or a bag of potato chips? If you're feeling a little squeamish, what if some scientist had just discovered that grasshoppers are a miracle food? What if they could prevent cancer, burn off excess fat stores, cure depression, and regrow receding hairlines?

We make this kind of decision every day: Do I want the less enjoyable, better-for-me option, or the more pleasurable, less healthy alternative? A 2009 study in the Journal of Consumer Research reports that marketers can increase consumption of less-attractive foods (yes, they used curried grasshoppers) just by getting someone to physically approach the product.

The logic: When it comes to deciding how much we like something, our minds follow our bodies. We all know that when we want something, the brain tells the body to go get it. But the brain is also always "listening" to what you body is doing. For example, sitting up straight improves self-confidence, and simulating laughter or smiling boosts mood.

How does this play out in making smarter, healthier choices? Your brain knows that when something is pleasurable, your body is going to approach it. And when something is yucky, you're going to avoid it. So when the brain perceives the body approaching something, it starts to recalculate the value of that object or experience.

If you decide to approach something, even when you're feeling less than enthusiastic, your attitude can shift as you get closer to consuming it. On the other hand, literally walking away can convince the brain that you don't really want something.

This phenomenon plays a big role in shopping, as well. Customers who touch a product are more likely to purchase it and willing to pay more for it. And physical contact turns out to be only one way to convince the mind you like something. Just imagining yourself approaching or using a product has the same effect. (One of my "Science of Willpower" students, a real estate agent, immediately spotted the application of this finding. She started asking buyers to imagining living in a home: What would they use this room for? What would it be like to wake up to this beautiful view? Cha-ching!)

How can you apply this research to your willpower challenges? First, you can let your body lead your mind by actively approaching something that is good for you even if you are feeling resistance. This could include something you're procrastinating on (just open the damn file-let your fingers lead your mind), or the healthy option at the food buffet. Smile, even if you're faking it. See if the mind comes around, and you start to find more willingness.

Second, keep your hands off whatever you are trying to resist, whether it's something you don't need to buy, drink, or eat. Practice keeping your physical distance, or walking away. Wrinkle your nose in disgust.

Sure, it's acting — but the brain is a willing audience, and sometimes easier to fool than we think.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book, which is full of strategies for mindful and self-compassionate change, is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Studies referenced:

1. Labroo & Neilsen (2010). Half the thrill is in the chase: twisted inferences from embodied cognitions. Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 143-158.

2. Bushong, King, Camerer, & Rangel (2010). Pavlovian processes in consumer choice: The physical presence of a good increases willingness-to-pay. American Economic Review, 100, 1556-71.