Picture a thick wedge of rich, velvety Black Forest gateau. Hungry? Unlikely as it sounds, showing weight-conscious women pictures of sweet treats actually strengthens their resolve to eat healthily, rather than encouraging them to cheat.
Advertisers clearly believe images of tasty morsels persuade people to buy but psychologist Floor Kroese of Utrecht University in the Netherlands speculated that temptation might in fact heighten self-control.
To test out this theory, Kroese and her colleagues asked 54 female students to look at a picture of either a slice of chocolate cake or a flower under the guise of a memory test. The researchers then questioned the students about any plans to eat more healthily and offered them a choice between a chocolate or oatmeal cookie.
Women shown the cake picture gave a higher priority to their healthy eating intentions than their counterparts shown the flower. They were also significantly more likely to pick the oatmeal cookie – which earlier tests showed was generally perceived as the healthier option.
Let them look at cake
“Food temptations do not always trigger indulgence,” says Kroese. “It seems that seeing a food temptation reminded people of their goal to watch their weight, and helped them act accordingly.”
Previous studies suggested that smelling palatable, unhealthy foods makes people rate healthy eating as highly important, but this is the first research to look at how unhealthy food affects snacking behaviour.
Ayelet Fishbach of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago agrees with Kroese’s conclusion. “In moderation, this positive impact of food temptations will overcome the negative impact – the urge to indulge,” she says.
Kroese suggests that sticking pictures of tempting foods on the fridge door may help to bring weight-watching goals to mind. But she cautions that the results can only be applied to women wanting to lose weight: it is unclear whether they would hold in the general population.
Her team is now looking into varying the strength of a temptation. Early findings suggest that while very tempting images seem to remind people of their weight-loss goals, weakly attractive images do not prompt the same mechanism to kick in. “Interestingly, this might mean that weak temptations could then be more dangerous,” she says.
Via New Scientist