If you think a doughnut will go straight to your hips, you're more likely to cut the high-calorie food from your diet, according to a new study.
Researchers studying how dieters resist temptation have discovered that those who don’t melt in the presence of warm chocolate chip cookies or other yummy, but high-calorie treats, may gird their willpower by exaggerating just how fattening those foods may be.
It seems that having a distorted view of calories, rather than an accurate one, may reduce how much a person consumes because it can help them resist temptation and maintain their long-term goal.
In a series of experiments, social scientists at the University of Texas at Austin found that overestimating the negative effects of a temptation, a tactic called counteractive construal, can be a very effective self-control mechanism.
In one study, 38 female undergraduates were asked to estimate the calories in a cookie. Half were told they’d have the option of receiving the cookie as a complimentary gift for taking part in the study. The others were not offered cookies.
Researchers found that women who perceived the cookie as containing more calories than it really did and who saw it as more damaging to the attainment of their long-term weight-loss goal, were better able to resist it.
Study author Ying Zhang, PhD, a marketing professor, says people who exaggerate effectively aren’t aware of what they’re doing.
“You really don’t think you’re lying to yourself,” Zhang says. “You really believe it. That’s the consequence of practicing. You commit to a goal and do this over and over again, and you’re convinced that’s the case.”
In another study, 86 female college students entered a room decorated with posters of either fit models or nature scenery. Participants who saw the posters of fit models, which prompted them to remember their goals, were more likely to exaggerate the calories in, and consume less of, a soft drink they were offered later.
Scientists say this demonstrates that environmental stimuli can subtly activate people’s long-term diet goals.
“On average they drank about 60 percent less in the soda test,” Zhang says.
And another study showed counteractive construal can also be helpful when there’s a self-control conflict, and can be applied to context beyond counting calories. In a study of 93 college students, researchers discovered that those with a high grade point average were more likely than others to estimate an upcoming party to last longer and take more time away from studying. Those students reported a lower intent to attend the party.
“It’s a very powerful tool people can use,” Zhang explains.
The study was published online in the Journal of Consumer Research.