When compared to the control group, participants in the cognitive defusion group ate significantly less chocolate from the bag than would be expected by chance. What about the data from the diary? Did participants in the cognitive defusion group also record less chocolate in the diary? Although the raw numbers from the diary are consistent with the results from the bagged chocolate (13g versus 37g for the control group) this comparison fell just short of the usual statistical bar for scientific studies (the “p-value” which is related to how likely a finding is consistent with pure chance, was .053, while the usual cutoff is .05 or less). However, because it was very close, the researchers, in keeping with general practices in science, thus interpret the diary data as somewhat weaker evidence that the mindfulness strategy worked.
If this leaves you wondering what the take-away point is of all this, then maybe you can see how scientists sometimes disagree over what results say. Science is a messy process, and this paper is a fine example of that. In this particular study, the weight of all the evidence seems to suggest that a mindfulness strategy is effective in reducing chocolate consumption over the course of five days. However, there are still plenty of questions left unanswered. For example, what is it about mindfulness that led participants in that condition to be more successful than those in the control condition? The authors suggest that it may have something to do with the idea that we often consume chocolate and other sweets in a relatively automatic fashion, absent-mindedly grabbing a cookie as we walk past the shrine to sweetness in our kitchen. Mindfulness, according to the authors, effectively disrupts this type of automatic behavior.
In short, if you’re looking to reprogram yourself to eat fewer sweets, it seems like being mindful of the experience of the present situation could help you out. With such a strategy, instead of our thoughts driving us first to the kitchen and then to the jar of jelly bellies, we might instead see those thoughts as passengers on the bus that we are driving. This way, instead of munching a handful of jelly bellies, we can drive ourselves away from the kitchen, and closer to our goals for personal health.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.