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Got Cravings? The Best Way to Resist Temptation

When counting calories, research reveals the best way to forgo forbidden fruit.

Anyone who has ever been on a diet knows how difficult it is to pass up the foods you love. Indeed, self-control is hard enough when you are not on a diet. Yet every year, people manage to finally get their appetite and meal choices under control. What is the secret formula? In a word: habit.

Healthy Habits Hamper Indulgence

A study by Brian M. Galla and Angela L. Duckworth (2015) investigated the association between healthy habits, temptation, and self-control.[i] They found that beneficial habits are more impactful than effortful inhibition when it comes to the link between self-control and positive life outcomes. This result supports their hypothesis that people who have better self-control are able to use a lesser amount of effortful inhibition yet still make better progress on their goals because they are relying on beneficial habits.

How does this work when it comes to dieting? Pei-Ying Lin et al., in a study aptly entitled “Healthy Eating Habits Protect against Temptations” (2016), provide some explanations.[ii]

Apparently, when we are not able to consciously deliberate food choices, we default to habit. Lin et al. found that healthy food-choice habits protect people from selecting unhealthy options or consuming oversized portions when they are not deliberating—because they default to healthy habits.

One example included in their research was choosing between carrots and M&Ms. You might joke, is that really a choice? Lin et al. found that your answer apparently depends on what type of habits you have developed, and the circumstances under which you are choosing.

In the first study, subjects with unhealthy habits (but not those with healthy habits) gave in to temptation and consumed more chocolates when their self-control was depleted. In the second study, subjects who were trained to habitually select carrots when confronted with a pictorial stimulus resisted choosing M&Ms as long as the cue was present.

Under what conditions do habits offer the most protection? When the subjects´ executive control was drained by a previous task, as they demonstrated in their first study, rendering them unable to deliberate about their food choice. In their second study, where all subjects experienced depletion of executive control, healthy habits offered protection when activated by context cues.

Another reason we need to form habits is to combat crafty marketing techniques designed to lower our perceived need to exercise self-control to begin with.

Self Control Suffers When Products Come to Life

Are you more likely to eat a cookie that is smiling at you, or buy a product that speaks in an appealing tone of voice? Perhaps so, as explained by the concept of anthropomorphism—a marketing strategy that brings products to life.

When it comes to our ability to resist temptation, self-control is impacted by our views and beliefs about alluring products. Julia D. Hur et al. (2015) described temptation as a “tug-of-war” between self-control and impulses, and demonstrated how anthropomorphizing affects self-control.[iii]

The authors use a research-based definition of anthropomorphism as a marketing strategy that attributes “humanlike characteristics, motivations, intentions, or emotions” to nonhuman agents. We are exposed to anthropomorphized services, products, and brands every day. They cite examples such as ATM machines that speak to you (“I am now dispensing your money”) or car grills with facial expressions.

How does this marketing strategy work? In six studies, Hur et al. found that anthropomorphizing a tempting product weakens self-control by decreasing feelings of conflict about product consumption, not by increasing desire for the product. They explain that because conflict triggers the need for self-control, a weakened feeling of conflict is less likely to trigger this response, which makes consumers more likely to indulge.

Interestingly, their research showed that although anthropomorphism increases consumption of items that are desirable in the short-term but harmful from a long-term perspective, the lack of effect between desire and product appeal means that it does not create a positive view of the product. So although we might give in to temptation and polish off a bag of chips, we will not thereby view them favorably, or recommend that sodium-packed calorie-laden snack to others.

In the authors concluding words, “When temptations come alive, it is harder to see their true colors.” So true. Better to develop healthy habits to prevent picking up the smiling candy bar to begin with. Maybe you can learn to reach for the carrots.


[i]Brian M. Galla and Angela L. Duckworth, “More than Resisting Temptation: Beneficial Habits Mediate the Relationship between Self-Control and Positive Life Outcomes,” J Pers Soc Psychol. 109, no. 3, 2015, 508–525. doi:10.1037/pspp0000026.

[ii]Pei-Ying Lin, Wendy Wood, and John Monterosso, “Healthy Eating Habits Protect against Temptations.” Appetite 103, 2016, 432–40. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2015.11.011.

[iii]Julia D. Hur, Minjung Koo, and Wilhelm Hofmann, “When Temptations Come Alive: How Anthropomorphism Undermines Self-Control,” Journal of Consumer Research 42, 2015, DOI: 10.1093/jcr/ucv017.

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